the woman was beautiful. her bearing was regal, almost aloof, her facial features fine and strong. my eyes fell on the splendid yet jaunty diamond choker on her long stately neck and i almost sighed, but what was that quiet in her eyes and that longing for something afar?
i’d gone to see woman in gold without knowing anything about it, without reading reviews or hearing friends discuss. i am glad i did for that way there were no preconceived notions, no filters from the outside to colour my interaction with the screen and its happenings.
the camera allowed me into the story. the woman was sitting for a portrait, i could see the back of the artist, he asked “adele” (was that her name?) to move to the left… or was it right? and camera pulled back allowing a little peek at the canvas.
golden bits and squares gathered, shimmered, jolted and flowed moving up, revealing a woman at last, she with a long neck, a slightly lost and sad air… and that quiet in the eyes.
klimt! i exclaimed in my head though i know very little about art, but i’d seen this one of course. somewhere, here and there, most recently on coffee mugs.
and so began the story of maria altmann and her struggle to get her aunt’s portrait back from austria where it had been stolen during the second world war; at this point, it belonged to a well known state museum in vienna. maria was jewish and had fled her country during the nazi occupation when she was a young woman of about twenty, coming to america where she’d made a new life for herself with her husband, as had her sister, and she lived in los angeles. now her sister had died, and among her possessions maria had found papers that indicated several art pieces had been stolen by the nazis from their home – she belonged to a wealthy family – among these the portrait of her aunt adele.
her favourite aunt. the wife of her industrialist uncle, who was a bright and lovely woman, something incandescent about her, at least in maria’s memory. her aunt who loved her dearly and understood her, and who had no children of her own.
something is stirred in maria after years of being tethered to the present, shutting out the memories of a time that was obviously traumatic. she wants to see if there’s a chance of getting her aunt’s portrait back. maria asks her friend’s son, randy schoenberg, a young lawyer, to help her. though his grandfather was the austrian jewish painter and composer arthur schoenberg, randy has no ties with austria and all that happened there back in the last century… to him, the holocaust is a distant far away thing. he doesn’t want to get involved; new job, second child on the way, he has no time for this.
of course he does get involved. this was a hollywood movie, there had to be certain familiar signature moments. i was looking forward to helen mirren’s acting. who’s this ryan reynolds, i wondered, i’d never heard of him before.
also, all along i thought the film was based on pure fiction.
that painting was famous i knew, so how could there be a story like this about it and that not be part of some conversation somewhere. obviously i am not conversing with the sort of people who know such things. this is a true story. and the film hasn’t gone down well with critics i now see.
it is apparently too simplistic and tells the tale through flat characters, either good or bad. life is never that simple, people are multidimensional, story telling heavy handed, too hollywood, etc.
well, to me, it never felt like the story about restitution of stolen art or even about the heroic battle of maria and randy against powerful, over confident state officialdom with barely concealed anti jewish sentiments. that was what its structure was… the outer frame, the covering, the visible, understandable bit. i enjoyed it, i knew it was slightly simplified though not utterly simplistic.
but the real story, that lay elsewhere. it was about worlds lost that can never be found, restituted. about identity, how do we keep it when all is taken, how do we evolve and hold on to what we were while adding on what we are becoming. and most of all, it was about memory. about painful gut wrenching memories and shining dazzling ones, ones that make us proud, ones that make us feel helpless, guilty, ashamed. some that make us laugh.
i had settled down to a nice story of the individual fighting against all odds to get back what’s hers, but as helen mirren’s eyes glinted remembering two little girls posing for a family portrait with four adults, one girl smiling, the other frowning slightly, and the woman seated pulled her toward herself, her aunt adele, who she was close to… i stepped into maria’s memories. they seemed to brush against mine.
maria, painted by three actors, helen mirren, tatiana maslany (maria in her twenties), and nellie schilling (maria as a child) took me into her moments stored within. growing up in vienna, living in the heart of the city in a beautiful apartment; her wedding, all the merriment, the dancing along with the classic heel kicking hora; her father’s love for the cello, her aunt’s loneliness and beauty, her dashing successful pragmatic uncle, her elegant loving mother; the heckling of the jews, the hounding; the growing unease and fear; the sudden knock on the door… house arrest… escape… her parents sitting still as a portrait in a room as she bid them farewell, and escaped pretending to the guard she needed to go to the pharmacy. these things are made into movies, but they actually happen. they did happen in fact… and still do. in many places, in different ways.
maria didn’t want to go back to austria. no, she just couldn’t. i knew exactly what she meant. exactly.
fifty years for her, thirty five for me… i know going back isn’t easy. in fact, i still haven’t been able to.
when your home is taken from you, when you become “the other”, when you will be killed just because you are now seen as the enemy, though you have done nothing. in fact, if anything you you’ve believed you belong… when you’ve had to leave because there was no other way… and you’ve had to make another life, trying hard never to be bitter about the place your heart carried in you… it’s hard to go back.
to that place where you have lost forever. non-negotiable, non-restitutable loss. and you’ve often wondered if you could have done something to prevent it. maria left her parents and went away, they told her never to be bitter… i think she wondered at times if she had been selfish, if she could have taken them along. she never saw them again. that last memory of hers of them was the portrait she could never get back.
they danced the hora at my wedding. my father told me about hitler i remember as we passed through germany by train when i was fourteen, he was moved by the plight of the jews. i wondered who these people were and then promptly forgot about them. till i met my husband in calcutta, not exactly a place where you think you’ll bump into a rather good looking jewish fellow. i was twenty one. it was the year after my father was killed in assam. because the assamese had decided bengalis were the cause of all their troubles, “the other”. my father loved assam, he spent almost all his work life there, turning down better paid jobs elsewhere… digboi oil field, duliajan… home. i love assam even today. part of me. my mother left duliajan with my brothers four days after my father’s death, her only concern, keeping the boys safe. i was already in calcutta. i never saw him… i understand how maria felt. in my way.
get rid of the bengali. bongali khedao, i think that’s what they said. the assamese people had reasons to be unhappy, and maybe all discontent had to find a focal point, by some trick of fact and much fiction, the bengali became the bad guy in their eyes. no shades, no grey, only black and to be finished off.
i knew his life was in danger. but i could do nothing. he never believed anything would happen. he loved assam too much for that. maria’s father too had not thought it was necessary to leave austria… uncanny, the touching of our memories. when randy and maria stood before the holocaust memorial reading the names, i remembered the first such memorial i saw. it was in paris… rows and rows of names of holocaust victims, neatly inscribed. sitting and looking at it with my husband and daughter, it occurred to me i’d never be comfortable raising my child, who is jewish, in europe. i was not imagining things.
as maria walked through the rooms of their old apartment, visiting a chain of memories and then joined the revelers at her wedding, i joined in. holding hands, kicking my heels.
we seem to live in a time that honours only transience. nothing lasts long. it isn’t allowed to. having described ourselves primarily from an economic standpoint: the consumer… we have to be in a constant rush to acquire and throw away. even the word old is practically banished from our world.
woman in gold to me was about memory. about its beauty. about how it makes us us. giving us back to ourselves every time. and for that they don’t have to be good always. just true and specifically ours. “justice is priceless” says the poster, memory is even more precious, it’s invaluable.
i may never go back, or then again i may. i was reading up on the portrait of adele bloch-bauer I as klimt called the painting and i found maria altmann’s aunt was born on 9 august. that’s my maternal grandmother’s birthday. she was beautiful, in a way, my woman in gold.
i’d like to thank helen mirren and all the marias for their illuminated portrayal, ryan reynolds made randy extremely likable and touched on his transformation adeptly, thanks also to director simon curtis and writer alexi kaye campbell. the critics may not have thought much of the movie, but this ordinary viewer did.
i enjoyed reading this post history vs hollywood