The Klimt Painting, the Nazis and a Hollywood Courtroom Drama

Lawyer Randol Schoenberg helped Maria Altmann win back a legendary Klimt painting that the Nazis stole from her Austrian family during World War II. He talks about seeing his efforts brought to life in new film ‘Woman in Gold.’

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Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as Maria Altmann and Rondol Schoenberg in 'Woman in Gold.'
Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as Maria Altmann and Rondol Schoenberg in 'Woman in Gold.'Credit: The Weinsten Company

NEW YORK – When Adele Bloch-Bauer finally immigrated to the United States, she had already been dead for more than 80 years. Since 2006, the famed Gustav Klimt portrait of Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925, has hung on the second floor of the stately Neue Galerie New York.

Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren in 'Woman in Gold.'Credit: The Weinstein Company

Now the story of her long, dramatic journey from Vienna to the Upper East Side gets a Hollywood retelling in “Woman in Gold,” which had its U.S. premiere on Monday in Manhattan.

Randol Schoenberg, one of the story’s real-life inspirations, attended the screening at the Museum of Modern Art with his family in tow. He was the lawyer who battled the Austrian government in court to win custody of the painting on behalf of Maria Altmann – the niece of Bloch-Bauer and the painting’s rightful owner – who fled to Los Angeles during World War II. (Ronald Lauder bought the painting at auction in June 2006 for $135 million, after Altmann decided to sell it on behalf of her family.)

The Nazis had stolen the 1907 portrait, along with the rest of the upper-class family’s treasures, and later “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” ended up as a prized possession in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery, referred to as the “Austrian ‘Mona Lisa.’”

“I remember seeing it for the first time when my parents took me to Austria as a kid,” Schoenberg tells Haaretz, referring to the portrait, renowned for its golden hue. “I remember seeing it because my mom pointed out this painting and said, ‘You know your grandmother’s friend, Maria Altmann? That’s her aunt.’”

Not so naive

Years later, in 1998, as a young lawyer just starting his career, Schoenberg was contacted by Altmann (played in the movie by Helen Mirren) to explore the legal options to regain the painting, in light of a new Austrian restitution law. The call surprised him. “I had no idea their family owned it,” he says. What followed was an eight-year legal marathon involving a lot of archival sleuthing and a long march to the U.S. Supreme Court. At stake were no less than an Austrian national icon and the ethics of post-World War II restitution.

The Hollywood version of the story unfolds more or less as it actually happened, albeit with some chronological condensing and two of Schoenberg’s three kids being consolidated into one pregnancy, for the sake of storytelling efficiency. And, as the real Schoenberg says with a laugh, “I wasn’t quite as naive as the Randy character in the movie.”

Randy-in-the-movie, as portrayed by Ryan Reynolds, seems to have only a vague sense of his own family’s history in the Holocaust, though he’s well aware of the burden that comes with being the grandson of the renowned composer Arnold Schoenberg. In the film, on a research trip to Vienna with Altmann, Schoenberg has a meltdown at the Holocaust Memorial, an event drawn from real life.

“That’s something I went through,” Schoenberg nods. “You’re thinking of your ancestors, even if you didn’t know them, and you have that sort of visceral emotional feeling.” Though in the film it’s staged as a revelation, in real life Schoenberg had long been interested in his family’s genealogy, and had helped lead Holocaust commemoration events while attending Princeton, and at law school. He is currently president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Racy jokes

The Memorial incident is one of many details that Schoenberg shared with screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell. Among them were anecdotes from his court appearances, including his confusion at Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s opening question, and his impressions of Altmann, which clearly inform Mirren’s controlled yet endearing performance.

“She was very witty and sometimes liked racy jokes,” Schoenberg says of Altmann, who died in 2011, five years after their legal victory. “She was very elegant and stately and beautiful, but extremely warm and affectionate.

“She would occasionally quote from operas like we would quote from movies.” In the movie, he says, “they have Helen Mirren saying, ‘This is like a James Bond film.’ She wouldn’t have said a James Bond film. She would have said, ‘This is like “Parsifal,”’ or Verdi’s whatever. She exuded this old-world culture, [while] at the same time being very modern.”

That old world was something Schoenberg was able to visit, briefly, as an extra in one of the flashback party scenes that take place at the Altmanns’ opulent Viennese apartment. “I had no idea what to do or how to act,” he admits. “It was a lot of fun.”

Schoenberg also came to understand the world that was lost when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938.

“I understood from Maria and through my own family’s experience that [the] break that occurred in 1938 was extremely traumatic,” he said, referring to the year the Nazis invaded Austria. The film portrays several chilling scenes where Jews are publicly shamed and their property confiscated. “People felt differently about Austria after 1938 than they did before,” Schoenberg says. “There was a real rupture there.”

A key line in the film, spoken by Altmann, succinctly captures the heartbreak of those forced to flee their beloved home: “I’ll never forgive them for not letting me live here.” It was something Schoenberg’s grandmother once said to him as their train crossed the border into Austria.

At the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004, Altmann and Schoenberg won the right to sue the Austrian government. Two years later, in a surprise victory in arbitration in Austria, Altmann was awarded ownership of Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” along with several other paintings, and was finally reunited with her aunt.

“Woman in Gold” is out now in Israeli and U.S. theaters. The exhibition “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold” at Neue Galerie New York runs through September 7.

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