‘Woman in Gold’: An Auric Epic


A film shows how a 20th-century masterpiece stolen from a Jewish family during the Holocaust came to be created, loved, lost and returned.

Maria Altmann’s family home in Vienna, Austria, was the scene of terrible crimes, including home invasion, vandalism and the theft of numerous items. She not only knows who did it, but also where some of her family’s most treasured possessions are located.

Unfortunately for Altmann, the criminals who perpetrated those heinous acts against her and her family were the very same Nazis welcomed with cheers and flowers by the Austrian people in the 1938 Anschluss. And those family heirlooms — five works by Gustav Klimt, including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” who was Altmann’s aunt and lived with them in the same home — were treasured by her erstwhile countrymen for decades in their home at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.

The story of how the portrait, a 20th-century masterpiece, came to be created, loved, lost and returned is told in the new film, Woman in Gold. An amalgam of historical drama, road picture and buddy movie, it stars Helen Mirren as an octogenarian Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg, the 30-something family friend who helps her embark on a five-year legal battle to reclaim the portrait and four other Klimts from the Austrian government in a landmark Holocaust restitution case.

Director Simon Curtis, whose previous film, My Week With Marilyn, also focused on the object of beauty, ping pongs back and forth between 1990s Los Angeles, where Mirren’s flinty, impeccably dressed boutique owner and a surprisingly cast Reynolds, showing up here skinny and nebbishly dressed, strip­ped of his usual leading man charisma by his character’s initial lack of confidence and direction.

Curtis ably establishes the personalities of his leads as well as a stellar supporting cast that includes Charles Dance as the head of Schoenberg’s law firm; Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice William Rehnquist; and Tatiana Maslany, the rising star of the television series, Orphan Black,  whom Curtis says “people are going to be hearing from for a long time,” as the young Altmann in Nazi-controlled Vienna.

The cast also includes Katie Holmes as Schoenberg’s wife and Elizabeth McGovern as a federal judge who allows Altmann’s suit to go forward to the Supreme Court. In an interview conducted at the Four Seasons Philadelphia, Curtis attributes his ability to assemble so many noted actors for such minor but pivotal roles to a long career directing movies and series for the BBC and a reputation for working well with actors.

He had plenty of source material to prepare both himself and his cast. The story of Altmann’s quest to recover her family legacy has been the subject of three documentaries and at least two books, not to mention the first-person recollections of Schoenberg himself.

Despite his lack of experience, Schoenberg was originally hired by Altmann because his family and the Bloch-Bauers were close both in Austria and in Los Angeles, where they each settled upon immigrating to the United States. Much more carefully and elegantly attired than his onscreen doppelganger, Schoenberg’s affection for his client and family friend remains evident during an interview.

The grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who brought the 12-tone technique to prominence in the 20th century — his first name is actually an anagram of his grandfather’s — credits Altmann’s unshakeable faith in him as being a life-changing event for him and his family. She rejected offers to replace him before he successfully argued her case in front of the Supreme Court, and his victory not only made him into one of the world’s leading authorities on restitution and compensation of stolen artworks, but allowed him to become even more involved with Jewish affairs.

Thanks to his share of the proceeds from the sale of the portrait — it was purchased by Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie museum on the Upper East Side of New York City for a then-record $135 million — he was able to donate the funds needed to build an addition to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, which he serves as president.

He says that among the changes necessary to turn his and Altmann’s story into a dramatic film was to make his character much less Jewishly aware so that he could have an epiphany at Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial after losing an initial round of the case. But, he says, the rest is pretty accurate. “I did visit the memorial afterwards, and I did have a very emotional reaction,” he recalls about the memorial’s catalyzing effect on his ability to understand all that his and Altmann’s families lost.

But he prefers to dwell on the positives he sees that can come out of the film’s release, from audiences’ understanding of this aspect of the Holocaust to his own family’s appreciation for the casting.

“My wife couldn’t believe she was being played by Katie Holmes,” he exclaims. Of course, when asked how he feels about being portrayed by one of Hollywood’s leading men, he chooses to keep his own counsel.


Woman in Gold
Now showing at the Ritz Five
Second and Walnut streets, Philadelphia


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