|Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt. 1907|
Neue Galerie, New York
Set in Southern California and Vienna, a Jewish widow, Maria, played by Helen Mirren, has lost her last living relative, her sister, Luisa. In her deceased sister's effects, she finds letters one which causes her to speculate on a possible claim to artwork stolen from her family in Vienna during the Second World War. Other letters point to and rekindle memories of those last days with their upper middle class family in Vienna. Memories filled with the love of a close-knit Jewish mother and father, two daughters and an aunt and an uncle, all living under the same roof. Fine furnishings, classical music, beautiful paintings graced the elegant Block-Bauer apartment in the heart of Vienna. Two young girls, Maria and Luisa, so loved and treasured by their parents and childless aunt and uncle, were destined to flee Vienna - Maria fleeing with her husband and her sister fleeing separately.
In their home in Vienna, their beautiful childless aunt was revered by her husband and adored by her nieces. She was both beautiful and tragic in a way that words can not express, but the painting commissioned by her husband and painted by Gustav Klimt, captured in some ephemeral way a transcendent beauty and sadness. It was the theft of this painting more than any other that motivated Maria years later to seek restoration and justice by returning to Austria with her young Jewish lawyer to petition for its rightful return.
Randy, the lawyer son of Maria's friend and played by Ryan Reynolds, is at first uninterested in this proposed case of stolen artwork and Austria's asserted claim to restore the art to the rightful heirs. He is the grandson and son of successful men. His paternal grandfather fled Vienna and both he and Randy's father built successful lives in California for the family. His great-grandparents died at the hands of the Nazis. His ties to the past feel very weak as he discusses the possibility of taking Maria's case. He reminds her World War II and the fleeing of Vienna by their families occurred over fifty years ago. Besides he has a young family and is trying to recoup a flagging law career after a failed private practice. Viewing the value of the paintings in question, however changes his mind. He becomes convinced that Maria has a valid claim to the Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I hanging in Vienna's Belvedere Palace and touted as the pride of Austria. He stakes his career on it and his family's financial security.
A series of court cases ensue, some in Austria others in the United States to determine who were the rightful heirs to the Klimt paintings stolen from the Block-Bauer home. I won't spoil the story for you, I suggest you watch the movie.
There are some compelling insights that both of the main characters realize as they struggle to regain the family paintings. Insights that are timely for all. For Randy his life in the United States was divorced from the terror that his family had fled from in Vienna. His great-grandparents had lost their lives in Nazis Vienna as had Maria's parents. His paternal grandfather and father had built a life in California that sheltered him from memories of Nazis Germany and its reign of terror. His relationship with Maria and their return to Vienna introduced him in a powerful way to a past that was part of his history. While in Vienna they meet Hubertus, an Austrian journalist, who helps them with his understanding of the politics of Austria's art restoration movement.While Randy is suspicious of Hubertus, Maria trusts his offer of assistance. For Maria the return to Vienna both reopens the wounds of the Nazis reign, while rekindling memories of their loving family life.
It is those beautiful family memories so well remembered by Maria and portrayed by the characters, particularly Maria's father, that give the film a greater depth and value than simply the struggle for justice of stolen art. The loving home in which the parents and aunt and uncle delighted in the children and the children in turn were devoted to their parents and uncle and aunt is pictured exquisitely. There is joy and serenity pictured among the family members and then there is disruption. This beautiful, tranquil scene of family love is destroyed by the Nazis' hatred external to the family but capable of shattering its peace, joy and cohesiveness. Maria struggles to find healing from the memories of her lost life in Vienna and the loss of her parents. She returns to Vienna reluctantly to seek justice for the stolen art, but what was more viciously taken from her and from her family was their common life together lived out in the love that each family member had for the other. That life can not be restored to her and that was her greatest hope and desire. She grieves again for that loss.
It is in a final memory of the lives so tragically torn from one another that Maria begins to experience healing. She recalls the last scene with her parents in Vienna. Her husband has arranged for Maria and himself to flee the city. She has only moments to say good-bye. Her uncle has fled already and her aunt had died of meningitis years earlier. Maria goes to her parents. Her father is ill and her mother is by his side. They know she is going. They want her to go. Her father in the spirit of self-giving jokes with her that he will now speak in the language of her new country and he begins to speak in English. Maria is overcome with grief; she does not want to leave her parents, but she can not stay. Her father so brave only a moment ago, eyes fill with tears, his whole being fills with tears and he says to Maria, only one thing I ask "Remember us, remember us, remember us." and with great emotion they all collapse together hugging one another.
It is in those final words: "Remember us." "Remember me" that one can ponder both the depth of human love and self-giving and the depth of human sorrow and loss. St. John Paul II was one who plumbed the depths of the human spirit, always calling us as the true Master calls us to a more profound look at the events of our lives. Since the Garden of Eden, the human family has been caught in a travail of sorrows as the great gift of human life and love has been continually assaulted by a hateful foe. The words "Remember me" should call to mind the healing power of Christ's words: "Do this in memory of me." The self-giving love of one father to one daughter should remind us of the self-giving love of the Father's only beloved Son to his children. "Remember us."