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'Woman in Gold' Tells Story of Quest for Painting Stolen by Nazis

  • Penelope Poulou

Simon Curtis’ legal drama Woman in Gold is based on the true story of an American Jewish refugee from Austria who fights to reclaim a famous Gustave Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II.

Fifteen years ago, Maria Altman hired a young lawyer, a family friend, to help her sue the Austrian government to recover the painting, which was on display at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, home to the world's largest Klimt collection.

The film portrays the Austrian curator as an arrogant, unyielding man who refuses to return the painting to Altman because he believes the painting belongs to Austria. A local Austrian journalist tells Altman her chances of getting the painting back were infinitesimal because "Woman in Gold" was the Mona Lisa of Vienna. But for Altman, it was a family portrait of her Aunt Adele.

Filmmaker Curtis intersperses flashbacks of the dramatic last days before Altman’s escape from Vienna during the Nazi rule in 1938, with scenes of the contemporary courtroom drama.

Curtis’ film also addresses the much larger issue of victims’ need for justice rendered, even 70 years after the Holocaust.

“One of the important messages in this film is that we must remember what happened,” he said. “The 21st century is a very complicated and unstable place right now, and it is important to remember some of the lessons and some of the terrible mistakes that were made in the 20th century.”

Curtis says he took exceptional care to accurately depict scenes from the persecution of the Jews in Austria on the eve of WWII.

“We did our best to be as authentic as possible when we were recreating the hideous events of 1938 Vienna. We actually recreated documentary photographs and video of the Germans coming to town, so we did our best to give it as an authentic feel as possible.”

Helen Mirren offers a textured performance as the refined and spirited octogenarian Maria Altman. Ryan Reynolds plays Randol Schoenberg, an untried attorney in international law at the time, who in 1998 took the case against Austria to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. Today, Schoenberg is president of the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. He continues his efforts to reclaim art stolen from Jewish families.

“Immediately after the war, people didn’t concentrate on material things,” he explained. “It was rebuilding lives, finding loved ones, figuring out what had happened to them, so I think it did take time for these other issues to subside and for people to focus on the few things that they still could get back and art works are, seven decades later, one of the few things that we can still do something about.”

The world's costliest artwork, Gustav Klimt's portrait of a Viennese lady from 1907 "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," left, hangs in New York's Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art after being unveiled by its new owner, cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, fa

The world's costliest artwork, Gustav Klimt's portrait of a Viennese lady from 1907 "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," left, hangs in New York's Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art after being unveiled by its new owner, cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, fa

Today the painting is on public display in New York City’s Neue Galerie. Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder bought the "Woman in Gold" portrait from Maria Altman for $135 million in 2001. Janis Staggs, associate director for curatorial and publications at Neue Galerie, says Lauder had been captivated by the beauty and artistic mastery of the painting since he was 15 years old, but never thought he would own it one day. “I think for him it’s a dream come true,” she said.

Since the film Woman in Gold opened, thousands have visited the gallery to see the heavily gold-and-silver-encrusted painting in the flesh. Staggs notes, “It took Klimt four years to complete this picture, so you really need to see it in person in order to appreciate really the genius of the vision that he had for making this secular icon as she’s been dubbed.”

The portrait is no longer called "Woman in Gold". Since Altman won the litigation against Austria, her aunt’s name - erased by the Nazis - has been restored on the painting. It’s called "Adele Bloch-Bauer". In the film, Altman, played by Helen Mirren, pointedly says, “People see a masterpiece by one of Austria’s finest artists. But I see a picture of my aunt, a woman who used to talk to me about life. We should be reunited with what is rightfully ours.”

Woman in Gold is a haunting tale that speaks to the hearts of millions of people as they try to reclaim not only the art stolen from their ancestors, but their own past, stripped from them 70 years ago.

Chuck Forcucci and Bernard Shusman contributed to this story from New York

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