The Woman in Gold is an artistically and emotionally stunning film that takes the audience through the personal and legal struggles connected with the painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” one of Gustav Klimt’s most recognized works. The law involved is well portrayed and doubtless there is much to be said regarding the ways in which the relationship between law and those impacted by it is portrayed. There is, however, a more subtle form of pluralism that is the subject of this post.
Maria Altmann, one of the main characters of the film, is the litigant involved in the flight over “Adele.” Maria was born in Austria to an accomplished and artistic family that also was wealthy and Jewish. Her connection to “Adele” is as poignant as it is simple – the subject of the painting was her very dear aunt.
Throughout the film via flashbacks, the audience is transported to Austria before World War II and sees this world through Maria’s experiences. The audience is introduced to Maria’s family – her sister, her doting parents and uncle and aunt, and, eventually, her husband, Fritz. The audience is drawn into this family and shares its joys – particularly Maria’s powerfully joyous wedding – as well as its deep sorrows – from the internal family sorrow of her aunt’s death to the externally imposed sorrow of an Austria that comes under the authority of the Nazis. Ultimately, her uncle and sister leave Austria before the occupation but Maria and Fritz elect to stay in Vienna with her parents. The film heart achingly portrays the occupation of the Altmann family home by Nazis on trumped up charges and the confiscation of family possessions, including “Adele.” Eventually, Maria and Fritz have an opportunity to escape Vienna, although her parents stay behind and she never sees then again.
There are few flashbacks of Maria in the US other than a scene in which Fritz is attempting to teach her English. In this scene, Maria finds out that her father has died in Austria, severing another connection to her homeland. The severing of Maria’s connection to Austria is reflected in her constant reference to “Austrians” and insisting on speaking in English to a Viennese hotel clerk although he notes that she was born there. However, when she sees her former apartment building and the places she used to visit she is clearly transported to a place with which she has a connection and still identifies.
At the same time, film chronicles the personal journey of Randy, the lawyer son of Maria’s friend, whose family Maria knew in Austria. Randy is reluctantly roped into assisting Maria pursue a claim to “Adele” against the Austrian government on the ground that it was illegally appropriated during the war. Randy initially sees the case through an economic lens – “Adele” was valued at $100 million. Throughout the film, he learns about his family in Austria and their experiences before and during the war. He visits places where his grandfather lived and is exposed to the different trends of thought regarding the war – from denial to suppression of events in order to move forward to desires for open dialogues about actions under the Nazis.
One of the pivotal moments of the film occurs when Randy presents Maria’s claim to before an arbitral panel. The Austrian government claimed that the painting was a national treasure and belonged to and in Austria. Randy’s argument was equally evocative, noting that both he and Maria were Austrian. For him, this is a key personal moment of self-realization that he shared the nationality – and identity – of his grandfather. Regardless his ability to assert this as a matter of law, there was a deeper connection to identity that in this context could not be denied due to place of birth or laws. In short, Randy’s identity shifts throughout the film.
While the panel deliberates, an official from the Austrian government approaches Maria to offer a settlement allowing “Adele” to stay in the country as a national treasure. Maria responds with a reference to her aunt’s Austria (and, presumably, her own) versus the state that exists today and that “Adele” belongs to her Austria. Here we again see the use of nationality in context. For Maria, her aunt lived in a certain version of the country, one before the outrages of the Nazi regime and those who were complicit with it. Her aunt’s nationality was based on the context of a certain time period, one in which she was able to live unimpeded by hate. Similarly, Maria’s nationality was tied to a time and a place – to the state in which she was born but which ceased to exist even though she might be eligible to retain that nationality as a matter of law. Her nationality then became American, as that was the place in which she and Fritz were able to make a home and the context of the bulk of her memories.
There are many lessons from the film. One essential lesson is the existence of what can be termed “contextual nationality,” referring to the idea that nationality is more than a legal construct in strict terms. Rather, it is an identity and experience-based construct that can shift and that can share an intimate connection with time and place. It focuses around a law that is written in experience and identity – sharing a time and a set of values that links one to a nation even if these times and values no longer exist. In some ways, it is contextual nationality that merges the past into the identity of the present by incorporating a greater understanding of the factors that mould constructs of nationality.