Story of recovered Woman in Gold moves Germans to tears

Two starkly different images — a woman wrapped in shimmering gold, a man whipped and bleeding on a cold cement floor — highlight two new Holocaust-related films.

The first, a 1907 painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, is the centerpiece of “Woman in Gold,” a film starring Helen Mirren that had its world premiere last month at the Berlinale International Film Festival.

The second image is of activist Georg Elser, who sought to assassinate Hitler in 1939 and paid for the attempt with his life. His story has been retold in a new German production, “Elser: 13 Minutes,” that also premiered at the festival.

“Woman in Gold” opens in Bay Area theaters on Wednesday, April 1.

Helen Mirren with Ryan Reynolds in “Woman in Gold” photo/jta-the weinstein company-robert viglasky

Neither film was up for an award at the Berlinale. But the fact of their premieres in Germany shows how the Nazi past remains a subject of intense interest there nearly 70 years after the end of World War II.

“Woman in Gold” tells of the struggle for a small measure of justice decades after the genocide of European Jewry and the plundering of their property. The title refers to the art nouveau painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which hung for decades in the Belvedere Palace museum in Vienna before it was restituted to Maria Altmann, Bloch-Bauer’s niece.

Mirren adopts a nearly flawless Austrian-accented English in her portrayal of Maria, who fled the Nazis with her husband only to return decades later seeking the restitution of Klimt’s portrait of her aunt.

Maria faces stony refusals from Austrian museum authorities and nearly gives up, but her lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), and a young Austrian journalist, Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl), urge her to fight on. Eventually the painting is returned to Maria, who admits that her “mistake was thinking it would make everything all right, make it better.”

The return of great works of art to their rightful heirs has not been a frictionless process for Austria or Germany. Given that the film begins with Klimt applying gold leaf to his portrait of Bloch-Bauer, one might think that it would feed stereotypes about greedy heirs seeking to rob Austria of its cultural heritage.

But the screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell confronts these notions directly. In a wrenching flashback scene of the family’s final parting, Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann (Max Irons) reminds the young Maria of how his Jewish family started in Austria with nothing.

“We did everything we could to contribute and belong,” he says, asking one thing of his daughter: “Remember us.”

Remembrance is also a theme of “Elser: 13 Minutes,” which reconstructs the life and death of Georg Elser, a young Bavarian carpenter who became convinced that the top Nazi leadership had to be eliminated to end the war.

Elser involved no one else in his plot. He built and tested a bomb, and on Nov. 8, 1939 — two months after Germany invaded Poland —placed it behind Hitler’s lectern at a Munich beer hall. Hitler left the building 13 minutes earlier than planned, a gap that gives the film its title. Seven others in the hall were killed after Hitler was already out of range. Bungling his escape, Elser was captured and tortured before confessing.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel said that the extensive depictions of Elser’s beatings were intended to demonstrate how torture “turns a human into an animal.” But his main aim was to elevate Elser, whose act of defiance had been put on the back shelf after the war.

“Woman in Gold,” on the other hand, needed no scenes of savagery; the violence is implied through its contrast with the beauty of the painting. In the huge movie theater in the former East Berlin, many wiped away tears during the scene of the final parting. Applause began with the first rolling credits and did not end until the lights went up.

“Woman in Gold” opens Wednesday, April 1 in Bay Area theaters (PG-13, 110 minutes)

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.