Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Woman in Gold": a lawyer's epiphany regarding bookselling turns the plot in this true post-Holocaust story.

One of the most interesting confrontations in “Woman in Gold” (by Simon Curtis) occurs when young lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) does a job interview in downtown Los Angeles. He is quizzed on what went wrong when he went solo practicing law, and is asked if he is “ready to work with people”.  (That question could be asked of me, but it doesn't work if I have to pimp someone else's business.) The interviewers note he is grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg.  That composer’s reputation, and his twelve-tone technique get mentioned a few times, and some of the tone poem “Verklarte Nacht” for string sextet (which is an early postromantic work and tonal) gets played near the end.
Schoenberg has one possible client dangling, however.  When he goes to the home of Holocaust-survivor Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) he makes some social faux pas.  But that only starts a jerky relationship where he represents her legal battle to get back a painting of her aunt “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” from the Austrian government, since it was stolen by the Nazis when they sacked Vienna as Hitler took over most of continental Europe.
Her back story, shown in sepia (without green in some scenes, as a colorblind person might see it) of the harassment of her family by the Nazis and of her escape, is quite harrowing.  The current day parallel of course comes from ISIS.  The brutality is expressed in political terms, as the “Jews” are called “pigs” by invading soldiers.  But the extreme Left called most well-off middle class people that in the late 1960s.
Randol’s new employers don’t think he has a case (they’re wrong), and he winds up having to quit to pursue the case on his own, and resurrecting his own law firm, going into debt even as his wife (Katie Holmes) has a second child.  Despite his analytical, personally reticent nature, Randol seems to be quite tender in caring for his own family. In this manner, the structure of this movie’s plot resembles “Pilot Error” (yesterday) where a reporter quits to pursue her own urgent news story.
After the first visit to Vienna with Maria, Randol has an epiphany in a Barnes and Noble bookstore when he finds a coffee table art book with a reproduction of the painting.  He realizes that if the Austiran government-owned museum is doing commerce in the US with American booksellers, a lawsuit can be filed in the US.  This is certainly interesting to me, as soon I will be dealing with booksellers regarding my own book.  I wondered if the same would be true of the book were sold online to customers in the US but not in physical stores.  Eventually, Reynolds argues before the US Supreme Court (the judges played by actors) which rules in 2004 that the suit can go forward (“Republic of Austria v. Altmann”) because the Foreign Sovereignty Immunities Act (and its exception) apply to conduct before 1976. The argument that Altmann could jeopardize US foreign policy (then in Iraq) gets some laughs.
There’s a scene where a clerk confuses “Austria” with “Australia”.
Randol Schoenberg has his own video "The Art of the Heist: The Lady in Gold" on YouTube to supplement the film. He is a major founder of the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles.  

The official site is here (The Weinstein Company and BBC).  I saw this early Thursday afternoon before a small audience at Regal Ballston. 


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