April 05, 2015

Woman in Gold: Another Biopic For Dame Helen Mirren



The first shot in the new film Woman in Gold is of a glittering, fragile leaf of pure gold. Filling the screen, shivering at the slightest breeze, it is gently lifted, turned, sliced in half and then placed on a canvas, where it is unceremoniously pulverised into a surface coated with hundreds of its ­fellows. 


This is the surface of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. It is perhaps his most ­famous painting, The Kiss, below, notwithstanding. And it is the story behind this magnificent canvas that the film sets out to tell: its theft by the Nazis, its years on the wall of a state museum in Vienna, where it became known as the Mona Lisa of Austria, a sensational discovery by a dogged journalist and one woman’s long fight to reclaim it as hers. Helen Mirren stars as that woman, Adele’s niece Maria ­Altmann.


In the early 20th century, the Bloch-Bauers were the epitome of the “new” Viennese. Though it is only hinted at in the film, Adele was a thoroughly modern woman. (“I wonder what it will be like to be a woman when you are older,” she muses to her small niece in a sumptuous flashback. “Whether you will have to amuse yourself with trivialities.”) Adele wore loose gowns and smoked like a docker, though always through an elegant holder. She never had children and found them a bit annoying. She loathed the small talk of the idle rich, preferring politics and religion as topics, though she was always rather sickly and frail — also quite fashionable in Vienna at that time. Maria, who died in 2011 a few days before her 95th birthday, said of her aunt: “Adele was a modern woman living in the world of yesterday.”

Adele’s husband, Ferdinand, had come to Vienna as an immigrant from Bohemia, the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to make his fortune in the city. Adele was born there but her family also extended beyond it. And, crucially, they were both Jewish. “They were very much associated with this newly arrived generation in Vienna, who were cultured upper-middle class. They had progressive tastes and were identified in particular with the art and design of the Secession,” says Gemma Blackshaw, an art historian at Plymouth University.

Adele was the daughter of a prominent Viennese banker and had been fabulously wealthy even before she married her sugar magnate husband. She was one of the city’s most conspicuous spenders, commissioning clothes, interior design, paintings and decorative arts from the most exciting makers of the day. 

She also ran a famous salon from her palatial apartment that attracted the composer Gustav Mahler, the racy dramatist Arthur Schnitzler and, of course, the leading light of Vienna’s radical art scene, Klimt. It was Ferdinand who commissioned Klimt to paint Adele in 1903, though the portrait wasn’t finished until 1907. 

The artist spent more time on it than any other painting and made numerous preparatory sketches of Adele: one of the reasons for the persistent speculation that they had a sexual relationship. Whatever the truth (and Altmann thought it quite likely, though the film steers clear of the matter), Klimt’s dalliances were the bread and butter of Viennese society gossip. Adele was certainly the only female client he painted more than once, but that might have been because Klimt was by far the most expensive artist to commission in the city.

The portrait’s reception, however, hints at the darkness that was to envelop it and Vienna. As soon as it was finished the painting was exhibited in a touring show devoted to the modernist Vienna Workshops. Installed in a lavish arrangement of decorative objects and furniture, this gigantic gold and silver square, with Adele covered in Egyptian eye motifs as if she herself were a decorative object, dazzled visitors. 

When it was shown in Vienna, however, the critics were hostile, calling it “more Blech than Bloch”, Blech meaning “scrap metal”. It was a telling reception, Blackshaw says. “The Jewish people in Vienna ... many of them were incredibly wealthy; they were captains of industry, they supported the Austro-Hungarian government, they were involved with lighting, with alcohol, with sugar, they were very conspicuous. And the fact that the art was so showy, covered in silver and gold leaf — we can see something antisemitic in the criticism.”

Klimt painted many Jewish women, but for him they were oriental princesses, their dark hair and eyes exoticised, adhering to the 19th-century archetype of la Belle Juive, the beautiful Jewess. Even in Klimt’s benign, admiring depiction, they were considered “other”.

Adele died suddenly of meningitis in 1925, eight years before Hitler came to power in Germany. Then, in 1938, days after Maria Altmann returned to Vienna from her honeymoon in Paris with her husband Fritz, an opera singer, Nazi Germany annexed Austria. As the troops marched in, Vienna’s streets filled with cheering citizens, throwing flowers. 

The city’s Jews — those who had not already left — feared the worst. Sure enough, days later there was a hammering at the door of the Bloch-Bauer apartment, which the Altmanns shared with Maria’s parents (Ferdinand had already fled to the US, taking with him Maria’s sister Louisa). From beneath the noses of the helpless, terrified family, Nazi officers entered the Bloch-Bauer home and took every precious thing inside it, from the late Adele’s diamond necklace, her brother-in-law Gustav’s beloved Stradivari cello, Maria’s engagement ring and the paintings that adorned the richly decorated walls, including Adele’s portrait.

Left with a Nazi guard in the house day and night, Maria, 22, and her husband were forced to abandon her ageing parents, making a narrow escape by feigning a dental emergency in the middle of the night. They travelled first to Liverpool, then to Los Angeles, where they began a new life and had four children. She never saw her parents again. The family riches, including Ferdinand’s sugar business, which was seized in his absence, were shared among high-ranking Nazis. 

Adele’s necklace ended up adorning the neck of Emmy Goering; her portrait was hung on the wall of a prominent Nazi lawyer, who eventually gave it, along with the four other Klimt paintings, to the Belvedere gallery, where it hung for the next 60 years.

Fast-forward to 1998. The Austrian government passes a law to create a system by which, in theory at least, state property that can be shown to have been stolen by the Nazi regime can be restored to its legal owners. This followed the publication of a series of articles written by the investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who had uncovered the secret Nazi past of former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim. Czernin’s research disproved the official claim by the state that these five famous Klimt paintings had been donated to the Belvedere by the Bloch-Bauers. Although before she died Adele had indeed wanted to leave the paintings to the museum, Ferdinand, their legal owner, had overridden his wife’s wishes with a legal will written in exile, naming his nieces as heirs.

For Altmann, the change in the law was the trigger. In 2000, the ­elegant, cashmere-clad octogenarian, along with her inexperienced young lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (played in the movie by Ryan Reynolds) took the unprecedented step of suing the Austrian government for the return of her family’s property.

What followed was a near decade-long tussle that played out in the courtrooms of Austria and the US, and in the pages of Czernin’s newspaper. Altmann and Schoenberg — the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had fled the Third Reich with his family in the early 1930s — fought a long legal battle just for the right to take the Austrian government to court. And the government, and the Belvedere, fought right back.

“They will delay, delay, delay, hoping I will die,” Altmann said in 2001, as the case dragged on. “But I will do them the pleasure of staying alive.” It’s hard to overstate what was at stake for the Austrian authorities. Not only the opening of a can of worms and the potential emptying of Austria’s museums (which hasn’t happened), but also the possible loss of what was by this time the world’s image of Austria: the portrait of Adele.

Thwarted by Austria’s rules, which would have made court costs ruinously high, Altmann and Schoenberg won the right to have the case heard in the US. Then the debate hinged on whether the Austrian state could be sued there; the court eventually said yes. As a result, both parties agreed to go into arbitration in Vienna. On January 16, 2006, 99 years after Adele’s portrait was completed, three academics ruled that the portrait and the other paintings should be returned to Altmann.

For the curators at the Belvedere, “it must have been absolutely devastating”, Blackshaw says. “That image is used to brand Vienna to the world. It is central to the cultural tourism of the city. Even now, she’s everywhere — books, magnets, silk scarves — and yet she’s nowhere.”

To the end, Altmann remained firm on the subject. “People ask if I feel bad for the Austrians but that’s so ridiculous. They never made the slightest attempt to compensate us for all the years they had them. They just wanted to keep them. I persisted out of a desire that Austria should see that there is such a thing as justice,” she said.

While most Austrians conceded that the court’s decision was the right one, they mourned the portrait’s departure. In 2006 there was even a poster campaign in the city, bidding “Adele” an emotional goodbye. The Belvedere’s attempt to compensate, by installing Klimt’s Kiss in a very similar way to how Adele was presented, hasn’t quite worked. People still go to the gallery expecting to see Adele Bloch-Bauer. Her absence is conspicuous.

Now she is in New York. Soon after the painting arrived in the US, Altmann sold Adele to the cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder, on the proviso that she remain on public display in accordance with Adele’s own wishes, for a staggering £73 million, then a record.

The other paintings sold soon after for a total of £113m, all to private collections.
To coincide with the film’s release, Adele will become the centrepiece of an exhibition at her permanent home, Lauder’s Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue, exploring Klimt’s relationship with his devoted patron.

The museum itself, in the heart of worldly, cosmopolitan Manhattan, is devoted entirely to early 20th-­century German and Austrian art and design. Though far from the Vienna she once knew, Adele is quite at home.


By Nancy Durrant
With many thanks to The Australian

The cast is impressive too. 
Dame Helen Mirren - No stranger to biopics - Charles Dance, Katie Holmes, Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey),Max Irons and Daniel Brühl who did a great job playing Niki Lauda in Rush.



More from The Australian.

By Stephen Romei

Ah, Helen Mirren, you’ve done it again. As someone who has followed Mirren’s work since she burst on to the screen opposite James Mason in Michael Powell’s Dunk Island-filmed Age of Consent, I can’t think of a time when she has disappointed. 


We will all have our favourite Mirren moments but my top-of-the-head ones are in Age of Consent, Pat O’Connor’s IRA drama Cal (1984), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), as long-suffering Sofya Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station (2009) and, toweringly, as DCI (later DS) Jane Tennison in the British television crime series Prime Suspect.

Age of Consent came out in 1969 (so perhaps I caught it a few years later), when Mirren was a 24-year-old Royal Shakespeare Company regular. She turns 70 in July and while it may be true that serious roles are few and far between for older female actors, it is not the case for her. She won an Oscar in 2006 as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’s The Queen, and I bet it won’t be her last.

Woman in Gold is another true-life story. Mirren is Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who fled Vienna as the Nazis moved in. She lives in Los Angeles and we are in the early 1990s. When her sister dies, Maria finds a letter in her effects that determines her to try to recover five Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis stole from her family, now held in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery.

The most famous piece, known as Woman in Gold, is a portrait of Maria’s aunt Adele. “People see a portrait by one of Austria’s most famous painters,’’ Maria says. “I see a picture of my aunt.’’ Maybe so, but this painting is “the Mona Lisa of Austria” and the national government is not about to give it up.

Maria hires a callow young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds), because he is the son of a friend. He also happens to be the great-grandson of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, a bloodline that becomes important to him, and to the story.

On one level, director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell deliver a tense courtroom drama that unfolds in Vienna and the US, where the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. If you don’t know the story (I didn’t) I recommend you resist the temptation to Google and savour the suspense. The courtroom scenes are strong, but this contemporary story also holds the film’s weakest moments. There are too many slow scenes where the legal proceedings are explained rather than shown.

Having said that, the chemistry between Mirren and Reynolds is wonderful. She is part fussy mother, wiping a speck from his suit before court, part woman of the world who appreciates a handsome man when she sees one. Reynolds builds on his excellent work in Atom Egoyan’s The Captive, producing another character who is more complicated than he first seems.

There’s also much to enjoy in the supporting roles: Katie Holmes as Randy’s wife, Charles Dance as the stern (what else?) boss of Randy’s law firm, Daniel Bruhl as a crusading Viennese journalist, Jonathan Pryce and Elizabeth McGovern as senior US judges and Ben Miles (Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell on stage) as cosmetics mogul and art lover Ronald Lauder.

The second, more gripping, storyline is the historical one: the fate that befalls Maria and her prosperous family as Europe tilts towards madness in the late 30s. Tatiana Maslany is terrific as the young Maria, newly wed to handsome Fredrick Altmann (Max Irons, son of Jeremy and Sinead Cusack, and a model for good genes). She is devoted to her parents, but she knows, and they know, that flight is her only hope for a future.

There are several powerful scenes, but the one that lingers has the Nazis diligently doing an inventory of the family’s possessions. There’s a painting that will end up on Hitler’s wall, a necklace that will go into Mrs Hermann Goering’s jewellery box.

It’s a reminder that this existential threat to civilisation happened in the lifetimes of people still living. As Maria says, she doesn’t want the painting back because it’s worth $US100 million, but so that people will be know what happened, so that people will not forget.

In the flashbacks to Maria’s life in cultured Vienna, sumptuously shot by Australian cinematographer Ross Emery, there’s a terrible sense — because we know what is to come — of the slender threads that hold the world together. Passing the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, Randy muses in a touristy way: “It’s hard to believe Hitler once applied to be an art student here.’’ Maria’s response is immediate: “I wish they’d accepted him.’’


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