Film review of Woman in Gold

May 22, 2015

(This review of “Woman in Gold” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 May 2015.)

Directed by Simon Curtis; Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell; Starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance and Antje Traue

With its wide historical sweep and Holocaust theme, the new dramatic film “Woman in Gold” is the first big Jewish film of 2015. This re-creation of the true story of how Viennese Jewish refuge Maria Altmann reclaimed her family’s Nazi stolen art is told from the perspective of E. Randol (“Randy”) Schoenberg, the American Jewish lawyer who took up her cause. The film ranges from early twenty-first century Los Angeles back in time to the 1920s – when Gustav Klimt painted a commission of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer – and ahead to the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria, finally concluding in 2006.

Directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), “Woman in Gold” stars Helen Mirren as Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Schoenberg, who risks his professional career on the outcome of the case. As the grandson of the great Austrian-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, he had a strong personal interest in the fate of Austrian Jews and a long-time family connection with Altmann.

High production values add enormously to the impact of “Woman in Gold”. The classically defined nineteenth century architecture of Vienna nicely contrasts with the bland modern Los Angeles (which Randy Schoenberg describes as one of his grandfather Arnold’s “three great hates”) where Altmann and Schoenberg live.

“Woman of Gold” succeeds despite a pedestrian script (by first-timer Alexi Kaye Campbell), which frequently insists on “telling” the audience how characters feel, rather than showing us. Maria’s proclamation that, “I have to do what I can to keep the memories alive. Because people forget, especially the young. And then there’s justice”, feels stilted and predictable. There is too little mystery and little left to our imagination. We see scenes of Jews being forced to scrub sidewalks in 1938 Vienna, and of men having their beards cut off. Check and check. The problem is that we have seen these scenes before, all told in more affecting ways.

With no doubt about the film’s inevitable resolution, the main characters’ internal journeys needed to be made larger than life, in order to give us, the viewers, a reason to care about their fate. There was strong Austrian opposition to Altmann’s claims, concern that they would lose their national “Mona Lisa”.

Yet despite these faults, “Woman of Gold” works, in large part because of some exceptional performances, with Helen Mirren superbly personifying Maria. (This is Mirren’s third Jewish role, having played Ayn Rand in a 1999 telemovie and – most notably – the character of Rachel Singer in the Israeli spy drama “The Debt”.)

Ryan Reynolds bears a physical similarity to Schoenberg and performs strongly in an underwritten role that never quite illustrates the deep doubts, concerns and personal risks he most likely felt. The third key performance is by German actor Daniel Brühl, who does a great job in the role of the late Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who helped to uncover the false ownership claims of the Klimt paintings.

“Woman in Gold” also achieves a high level of verisimilitude in its use of language. Unlike many English language films that are partly set in Europe – including notable Holocaust dramas such as “Schindler’s List” – these on-screen actors speak German on screen (with subtitles) when their characters are meant to. This effect is important, because an underlying theme of “Woman of Gold” is not only personal and financial loss, but the cultural dissociation connected with becoming refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria – a loss that included the German language and culture that so nurtured the assimilated and successful Viennese Jews.

There are many other wonderful touches in “Woman in Gold”, including an exquisite re-creation of Adele Bloch-Bauer (played by German actress Antje Traue), Maria Altmann’s aunt. Klimt (played by Moiritz Bleibtreu) also makes an appearance, as does Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder (son of Estée, and played by British actor Ben Miles), who ultimately purchases the painting of Adele for his Neue Gallery in New York City. Katie Holmes plays Schoenberg’s wife Pam, Max Irons (son of Jeremy) plays Maria’s young husband Frederick, Charles Dance plays the boss of Schoenberg’s law firm and Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce appear as American judges.

More than any recent mainstream feature film, “Woman in Gold” shows how we Jews regard ourselves as one connected family. As one of the characters proclaims, this is “a moment in history in which the past is asking the present” to make amends. Altmann and Schoenberg were driven in part by the great responsibility to honour the generations that came before them.

With the stunning Klimt painting at the heart of this story, it is tailor-made for film. Although the story has already been told in three documentaries, “The Rape of Europa” (2006), “Adele’s Wish” (2008) and especially “Stealing Klimt” (2007), this is the first dramatic feature. Last year’s “Monuments Men” with George Clooney covered similar ground, but “Woman of Gold” is far superior in tone, style and substance.

Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer

(above: Gustav Klimt’s painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer)

Library of Unborrowed Books

April 21, 2014

Certainly one of the most interesting installations at the current Sydney Biennale is “The Library of Unborrowed Books” (“Section 3” – artist Meriç Algün Ringborg has done it before):  in this case all of the books that have never been borrowed from the library of the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (SMSA).  This is current at the Art Gallery of NSW until June.  The artist’s statement reads:

Libraries are repositories of information, aiding the acquisition and transference of knowledge from the individual to the global level. Algün Ringborg’s work draws attention to the explicit and implicit interests and systems that determine which books are kept in cultural and educational circulation, and which are left to fade into the shadows of history. With a small gesture, the artist gives these neglected titles their time in the sun; as viewers, we witness their existence and perhaps desire to save them from their former fate. The work also warns of the death of the book as a social phenomenon, signalling a time when perhaps all libraries (as long as they continue to exist) may consist entirely of unborrowed books.

Library of Unborrowed Books AGNSW April2014

A very interactive exhibit:  sit there all day and read the books, if you want.  Here are two “unborrowed” books that are sitting in my “to read” list – Rick Moody’s The Diviners and Barry Levinson’s Sixty-Six:

Rick Moody The Diviners

Barry Levinson Sixty-Six

(I am wondering what this says about me.  I guess that’s part of the point.)

Worth seeing.

The best public art in Sydney you may have missed

April 14, 2013

The world’s best cities are filled with outstanding public art – large scale, durable pieces of art that are commissioned and sit (or stand or hang) prominently in public spaces.  Well, here’s some of the best public art you may have never seen – or perhaps you walked past them for weeks, months or even years without noticing them properly.  I know I did.

These two pieces by Sydney architectural glass designer and artist Marc Grunseit hang in Sydney’s “The Galeries”  – a four-storey shopping complex located at 500 George Street in downtown Sydney (in part under the Citigroup Centre office building) that takes up a significant part of the block bounded by George, Pitt and Park Streets.

The Galeries art shots April2013 007

This is prime real estate, almost sitting on top of Town Hall Station, just about one of the best locations you can get in Australia.  (It also contains one of my favourite Australian bookshops – Books Kinokuniya, but that’s a different discussion.)

The Galeries art shots April2013 005

The Galeries Marc Grunseit

The Galeries art shots April2013 010

I have been walking under Grunseit’s two great architectural glass designs since they were first installed in October 2000 (including each weekday for the past thirteen months).  So how is it that I only really noticed these great works of art a few weeks ago?  It seems astonishing that I somehow have missed them for so long.

But yet I have.

Part of the reason is that they are located in narrow hallways and positioned quite high, so that the daily pedestrian traffic – so used to negotiating the downtown Sydney crowds and examining the up-market shop windows – may not have looked up to see them.  Another reason is that the two pieces are not easily visible from the street, partly obscured by the Sydney Monorail, which, thankfully is due for closing on 30 June 2013, with total removal by mid-2014.  The pieces are located at the two Pitt Street exits (entrances) to The Galeries.  The best (and in fact the only) views of the works are as you walk out from the shopping complex onto Pitt Street.

These are impressive works, filled with bright colours and deeply Australian in their themes, reminiscent of Aboriginal paintings.  In his website, Marc Grunseit describes them:

The first design [“The Song of the Magpie Dawn”] was inspired by the lyrical calls of the Magpie, heralding the Australian dawn. The colours of the rising sun progress from seashore to desert, presided over by the spirit of the songster. It is very much a companion piece to the larger installation, being at once a map of the land and its spirits. The larger design is of a serpentine landmass surrounded by ocean, simultaneously viewed from various perspectives and levels of magnification, referring to a range of Australian environments populated by surreal fauna.

Grunseit artwork The Galeries Syd far

Grunseit artwork The Galeries Syd close

The larger one is my favourite, and can be interpreted in so many ways.  It’s called “This Land”; according to the artist, it was named after the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land”.  I have found the small plaque (see photo above) describing “Magpie Dawn”, but the plaque for “This Land” unfortunately has long since disappeared or been hidden so well that I have not found it.  What a shame that these two pieces are not given their full due: they are two of the greatest works of architectural glass I have ever seen.  They are good enough to become one of the required “photo op” stops in Sydney, along with the Archibald Fountain  and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.

Postscript on 7 August 2013:

I have heard from the artist Marc Grunseit, who does not appear to be bothered by the lack of awareness that most people have about these two works.  He writes:  “You and many people walk under the work without seeing it is actually a compliment. There is a concept, known in my game as ‘Civic Inattention’. It is reckoned that if the artist’s ego is in proportion, the artwork will not leap out of the architecture waving it’s arms about calling ‘look at me’. The aim is to blend it in so it looks like it should be there. Maybe I succeeded.”

It’s unusual to find an artist who does not want to scream to the heavens “here I am!”, but it seems we have one.  How unique.  But the pieces are still worth looking at, for the scope, the size and the colours, as well as the deeper meaning of the landscapes that they portray.