Sixty years after the portrait was stolen by the Nazis, Woman In Gold brings to life the real events leading to a decade-long battle for restitution
The film, Woman In Gold is a fascinating glimpse into twentieth century Viennese society; a fairytale life that encompassed the most accomplished Viennese Jewish glitterati later decimated by the Nazis. Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele-Bloch- Bauer 1 was the most seductive and emblematic portrait of its time – so much so that Austrians regarded it as ‘their Mona Lisa.’
It’s also a lesson in perseverance through a nightmare of bureaucratic red tape and twists of fate as Maria Altmann (portrayed by the impeccable Dame Helen Mirren,) begins her journey to retrieve five Klimt paintings seized by the Nazis – among them Klimt’s famous painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1.
Altmann went out on a limb with her inexperienced, naïve but tenacious young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), and embarks upon a major battle to sue the Austrian government and confront the establishment who stuck their heads in the sand rather than admit culpability. Until finally, the U.S. Supreme Court becomes the lynchpin in the precedent- setting case.
The Bauer sisters had married brothers, Ferdinand and Gustav Bloch, and together they all shared a palatial apartment situated on one of Vienna’s grandest avenues, Elisabethstrasse. Adele and her husband Ferdinand were prominent members of Jewish society and wealthy patrons of the arts. Adele herself was the hostess of a renowned Viennese salon that attracted prominent figures like Alma and Gustav Mahler, theatre director, Max Burckhard, playwright and author, Arthur Schnitzler and Gustav Klimt.
Maria Altmann was born in Vienna in 1916, nine years after Gustav Klimt had completed his gilded masterpiece of her Aunt Adele. (It was said that the artist made over 100 sketches of her.)
The opulent work is composed of oil paint covered in layers of delicate gold leaf and silver and took Klimt three years to complete. The diamond necklace his muse Adele wears in the painting, would later be given to Maria as a wedding present by her uncle. It was also stolen by the Nazis and ended up in the collection of Hermann Göering, around his wife’s neck. The necklace was never recovered by the Altmann family.
The portrait was confiscated from the Bloch-Bauers grand palais by the Nazis in 1938 and the Austrian government put the painting on display in Vienna’s magnificent Baroque Belvedere Palace, then commandeered as a Nazi institution. They first stripped it of its original Jewish surname and re-named it Portrait of a Lady With Gold Background. Ironically, Klimt, a hedonist and all his work were initially considered degenerate by the Austrian Ministry of Culture. In fact they cancelled its plan to send one of his paintings to St. Louis for display at the 1904 World’s Fair as they thought it an embarrassment.
Reached by phone in Toronto where he has been on a media tour to promote the film, British director Simon Curtis (Academy Award nominated, My Week With Marilyn,) said the film had a personal resonance for him. “The Vienna shoot was without doubt the most wonderful, most emotional working experience I’ve ever had. We were recreating the end of the Jewish community in Vienna. It was very powerful especially when crowds reenacted the Anschluss with Nazi flags draped from buildings. I’m also from a Jewish Eastern European background, ” says Curtis. “In fact the silver wine goblet that the Nazi picks up in the Bloch-Bauer apartment in the film, actually belonged to my Polish great grandfather.”
As a consultant to Woman In Gold, the LA-based lawyer, E. Randol (Randy) Schoenberg, whom Ryan Reynolds plays in the film, was actually relieved that Reynolds decided not to portray an exact facsimile of him. “I actually didn’t meet Ryan until the last day of shooting,” admits Schoenberg by phone from Los Angeles. “ I respect that he wanted to interpret my character not as a carbon copy. It’s really difficult to compress eight years of legal battle into a film,” he says. “But that breakdown in the film at the Austrian Holocaust Monument was exactly my story – it was very emotional for me as Ryan conveyed,” says Schoenberg whose grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg fled the rise of Hitler and was on his list of “degenerate artists.” “Maria had a great sense of humor and I think Ryan and Helen’s on -screen chemistry really comes across.”
Sadly, the cast of Woman In Gold didn’t have an opportunity to meet the real Maria Altmann as she passed away at age 94 in 2011.
Says Simon Curtis, “It’s an unfortunate coincidence but at the same time, very important I feel, that the release of Woman In Gold coincides with all the resurgence of anti-Semitism going on in Europe today.”
Following its return to Maria Altmann, businessman and cosmetics heir, Ronald Lauder acquired Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for $135million in 2006 and it hangs in his Neue Galerie, New York. Their Exhibition Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer Opens April 1 to September 7, 2015
Book Club suggestion: The Lady In Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, published by Knopf
Top Photo: The late Maria Altmann with her beloved Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1. Photo courtesy of Randol Schoenberg.