- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Most people know it as the “painting on the fridge magnets,” but few know the long, tormented history of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” painted by the Austrian master in 1907. The work passed to model Bloch-Bauer’s Viennese descendents, from whom the Nazis stole it, along with thousands of other priceless works owned by the Austrian capital’s Jews.

The film “Woman in Gold,” opening Wednesday in the District, tells the story of Maria Altmann, Bloch-Bauer’s niece, who escaped Austria with her husband, Fritz, first to France and then to the United States.

Few of Vienna’s Jews, including Altmann’s parents, were so fortunate.

“My first real connection [to the story] was a documentary called ‘Stealing Klimt’ that was shown on BBC,” said the film’s director, Simon Curtis. “I thought, ‘My God, this is an amazing story, a story of the 20th century in a lot of ways.’”

Academy Award winner Helen Mirren stars as Altmann, with Ryan Reynolds portraying E. Randol Schoenberg, the Los Angeles lawyer who took on the unlikely cause of “winning” Klimt’s portrait of her aunt away from Austria’s National Gallery, where it had resided since the end of World War II.

“I’d been to Vienna a couple of times and had seen the picture, and I remember my mom, when I was a teenager, she said, ‘You know your grandmother’s friend Maria Altmann, this is her [aunt] Adele Bloch-Bauer,’” Mr. Schoenberg told The Washington Times. “I just knew that Maria Altmann’s aunt was painted by Gustav Klimt, but I didn’t realize they owned the painting until Maria called me in 1998, and that’s how it started.”

Like Altmann, Mr. Schoenberg’s roots went deep into Austria’s past. His grandfather was composer Arnold Schoenberg, who died before Randol was born. (Mr. Schoenberg said he plays violin “very badly.”)

“[Altmann] and my grandmother were very close friends,” he said of his client, who died in 2011 at 94. “At the time [the case] started, her husband had died, my grandparents had died, so she was sort of the last link” to the Jewish Viennese community all but destroyed upon Nazi Germany’s takeover in 1938 and the subsequent world war.

Prior to the rise of Nazism in Europe, Vienna was viewed by many as the cultural center of the world. In addition to Klimt and Schoenberg, the city was home to composers Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, stage pioneer Max Reinhardt, and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and his many acolytes and rivals. Among the talent percolating were Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger, who went on to become great film directors after migrating to America.

“I was very keen on presenting the Bloch-Bauer family as the epitome of that Jewish community that was shattered almost overnight in 1938,” Mr. Curtis said. “I think that community thought of themselves as more Austrian than Jewish, and I think that’s one of the reasons that a lot of them thought, ‘We’ll be fine, because we’re Austrians.’

“And you could argue that once the Jews left, [Vienna] never regained its status as a great city.”

Yet Klimt’s painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, despite its model’s religion, was prized by a high-ranking German who reappropriated it for himself. When Germany was defeated in 1945, the canvas found its way into the Austrian museum.

“She did have a sort of ambivalence toward Austria that I didn’t see quite as much from my grandmother,” Mr. Schoenberg said of Altmann, who was but 22 when she escaped her homeland. “I remember she said, ‘I could take it or leave it,’ whereas the older ones still felt really tied to it.”

The portrait of her aunt was another matter.

“I was very struck by the way she talked with great pride,” Mr. Curtis said, “that ‘My aunt hangs in the balance.’”

Mr. Schoenberg took on her case, which put a strain on his law practice and on his family’s finances. The odds were stacked against them: Even if Altmann had a legal right to the painting, the Austrians would be anything but eager to part with what they viewed as a piece of their cultural heritage, whether or not a Nazi had stolen it.

The unlikely duo of client and attorney would embark on a yearslong quest that took them across the Atlantic several times and even to the Supreme Court. He said that at several points during their uncertain quest, Mr. Schoenberg would often ask himself: “Is this going to be ‘Erin Brockovich’ or is it going to be ‘A Simple Action’?”

“People ask, ‘Is it accurate; is it not accurate?’” Mr. Schoenberg said of the film’s artistic licenses. “At its core, everything is accurate, [but] you realize that even if we made a movie of our conversation right now, there’d be a different set and there’d be different words, and it wouldn’t be exactly the same, so everything is changed in a way, but it’s all at core” close to what actually occurred, he said.

Mr. Schoenberg points to a particular scene in “Woman in Gold” that captures the spirit, if not the letter, of truth. His avatar, played by Mr. Reynolds, visits the Holocaust memorial at Treblinka, Poland, and breaks down, which Mr. Schoenberg said did occur, albeit not at the time portrayed in the film.

“That came from a story that I told Simon and the writer that I was there when they unveiled the monument,” he said, “and I started thinking of my great-grandfather [who perished in the Holocaust] and cried. So even though that scene [in the film] is ‘not accurate,’ it is a true story.”

Mr. Schoenberg continues his quest to reunite artworks stolen by the Nazis with the descendants of their rightful owners. Even seven decades later, there remain hundreds of thousands of such misappropriated works, including one he has been fighting for nine years to liberate from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

“They’ll show up eventually,” he said of such pieces. “People die and someone inherits them, and they bring them to Christie’s, and then ‘Boom!’ the bells go off. But where they are now, no one knows.”

Mr. Curtis and Mr. Schoenberg worry about a resurgent tide of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, epitomized in January by the killings at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a nearby kosher deli in Paris.

“This film has landed at a time when people need reminding of the perils of anti-Semitism,” said Mr. Curtis, a native of England. “French Jewish families are leaving the country. It’s a terrible time. And you just wish this century would pay more attention to the lessons of the last century.

“It is good to have that reminder every generation,” Mr. Schoenberg said. “Every new group of people need to learn the story.

“I think we’re fortunate that America has a culture of openness,” he said. “We also have a political system that allows us to integrate different viewpoints — the sort of the genius of the Founding Fathers. I would say from the perspective of people who did escape, I’ve always grown up being very pro-immigration as a result.”

“I think it’s a love letter to America’s policy of immigration,” Mr. Curtis said of his film. “One refugee from Vienna, who lived most of her life in California, teams up with the grandson of another refugee, and they go all the way to the Supreme Court, and that helps propel the case back to Austria. That’s another timely reminder [of] the glory of immigration, actually.”

The film raises important issues in examining the atrocities of the past and their effects on the present, said Mr. Schoenberg, who is president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

He shared a laugh about the one time he met Mr. Reynolds on the set of “Woman in Gold.”

He drove to the Beverly Hills location in his typical khakis and dress shirt and arrived on set to see Mr. Reynolds in identical attire.

“He walked over, points to me and points to himself, and he’s dressed exactly the same,” Mr. Schoenberg said. “So he says, ‘[I] nailed it.’”

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