Glimpse into a lost world

Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren and Daniel Bruhl star in Woman in Gold. Photo by Robert Viglasky
Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren and Daniel Bruhl star in Woman in Gold.
Photo by Robert Viglasky

Woman in Gold took eight weeks to film. The movie’s protagonist, Maria Altmann, and her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, struggled nearly a decade in real life to reclaim paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.

Among the paintings was the priceless “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” Maria’s aunt, by prominent Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.

The elegant Bloch-Bauer was a patron (possibly lover) of the artist. His richly ornamented portrait, fashioned of oil, silver, and gold on canvas, was considered the Mona Lisa of Austria.
“It’s a magnificent painting,” said Schoenberg.

Director Simon Curtis’s English-American film Woman in Gold captures highlights of that legal battle, and a glimpse into the world of art, culture, and learning lost when the Nazis entered Austria.

Altmann took her battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor in Republic of Austria v. Altmann (2004). The case, which had been considered a long shot by legal experts, was finally won when an independent panel of judges in Austria ruled that the paintings should be returned to the family.

The film is slow to open, despite the subject matter. But the movie comes into its own when Helen Mirren, as Maria, and Ryan Reynolds as Schoenberg visit Austria in search of justice. Filming on location in Vienna, and using flashbacks as well as reproductions of actual period photographs, including of Orthodox Jews having their beards cut and businesspeople being forced to write “Jew” on their shops, Curtis brings the pre-World War II city to life.

Then there is spot-on performance by Helen Mirren as the stubborn but warm and witty Maria, who declared herself “a person of great perseverance,” in The New York Times in 2006.

Although unable to meet Altmann, who died in 2011 at 94, the actress watched documentaries to achieve the right accent and mannerisms. As she has in her portrayal of the two Queen Elizabeths and many other roles, Mirren clinches it.

Schoenberg jokes that he bears little resemblance to Ryan Reynolds, but the actor does well with what might be the role of a lifetime—conveying intelligence, empathy, and emotional growth.

One of the movie’s joys is the deepening affection between lawyer and client, despite initial mistrust. The chemistry works well between Reynolds and a redheaded, deglamorized Mirren, as it did in real life between Maria and Randol.

“It’s a love story,” said Curtis, whose previous directorial effort was the much-smaller-scale My Week with Marilyn.

Daniel Bruhl gives a strong, understated performance as Hubertus Czernin, the Austrian journalist who helped Maria with research. (He also revealed the wartime activities of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.)

Aside from the appearance of Curtis’s wife, actress Elizabeth McGovern, in a small role, the film has personal resonance for him. One of the objects stolen by the Nazis is a silver cup, which actually belonged to the director’s great-grandfather.

“It wasn’t just about systematic annihilation of people but about dispossession,” he said.

It is also about the loss of human connections. The film moves from Maria’s wedding, “considered the last great social event of the Jewish community,” in his words, to her poignant farewell from her parents before she and husband, Fritz, escape from Austria.

Tatiana Maslany’s performance as Young Maria conveys the uncertainty and guilt of a woman leaving behind aging parents and the terror, as she and Fritz elude chasing Nazis, they will be caught.

The film deviates a little from fact. For example, Randol admits to his wife (Katie Holmes) that he initially took the case because of the potential financial reward—Adele’s portrait was eventually bought by businessman-philanthropist Ronald Lauder for $135 million—rather than commitment.

In reality, said Schoenberg, the worth of the paintings was relevant only in the sense that one was willing to “take a risk” for them.

“We felt the character should go on a journey,” explained Curtis. “So we tweaked the story and made Randol an all-American who learns what his ancestors—including his grandfathers, Austrian-born composers Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl — Randol Schoenberg — went through.”

Two books have been written and three documentary films created about the Altmann story. Curtis was most affected by Stealing Klimt, released in 2007.

The portrait of Adele Bauer-Bloch now hangs in the Neue Galerie, owned by Lauder, in Manhattan.

Randol Schoenberg still takes occasional restitution cases, which he calls “very difficult.” He is also involved in charitable work, including as president of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum.

With the specter of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Curtis and Schoenberg emphasize, the film is more relevant than ever.

Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, Woman in Gold also features Max Irons, Charles Dance and Jonathan Pryce. The film, produced by BBC Films and distributed by The Weinstein Company, opens April 1 at the Landmark E Cinema, 555 11th Street, NW, Washington. For information, call: (202) 783-9494. In conjunction with the opening, the Neue Galerie will present a special exhibit, “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer,” from April 2-September 7. 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86 Street;, New York, N.Y. (212) 628-6200.

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