This is the second Luncheon Society gathering that addresses the iconic history behind the Gustav Klimt masterpiece, “The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” commonly known at the “Woman in Gold.” Several year ago, Anne-Marie O’Connor offered an overarching history behind the painting, along the backdrop of the Viennese culture prior to the first World War until its descent into the hell of Nazism.
Until the Anschluss, the painting remained in the private hands, as part of the family art collection. However, in 1941, the Nazis seized the painting and it ended up in the Belvedere, on where it stood as the “Mona Lisa of Austria.”
The Bloch-Bauer family, scattered and ravaged by the Holocaust, soon discovered that any attempts to regain private possession of their family’s masterpiece was met with a cold shoulder the Austrian government.
By now, Maria Altman was living in Los Angeles in the autumn of a very long life. However, she decided that she would make one last chance to get her family’s paintings back. In a court case that began as Altmann v. Republic of Austria in 2000, it slowly weaved it’s through the American legal system, when it ended up at the US Supreme Court in 2004 (Republic of Austria v. Altmann) on appeal,
A young attorney, E. Randol (Randy) Schoenberg, the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and who socialized with Maria Altmann, took the case. Among long odds, Schoenberg was able to prevail at the US Supreme Court as well as an arbitration in Austria, where they decided that 5 of the 6 paintings would be returned to the descendants of the Bloch-Bauer family.
Over the years, we have had several people who found themselves portrayed on television or film, like Lowell Bergman (portrayed by Al Pacino in the film “The Insider”), Ben Bradlee Jr (portrayed by John Slattery in the Academy Award winning film “Spotlight”), Ambassador Joseph Wilson (portrayed by Sean Penn in “Fair Game”) and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart (portrayed by Kieran Mulroney in Tom Hanks HBO miniseries ’From the Earth to the Moon) to mention a few and all have said that there is an out-of-body sense when they see themselves on screen.
Schoenberg felt no different as he was portrayed by Ryan Reynolds and Maria Altmann was played by Helen Mirren. Even though certain scenes might have been collapsed into each other for dramatic purposes, Randy felt that the movie got it right.
Below is a review from Susan Wloszczyna for Roger.ebert.com
“Woman in Gold,” directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), is a more intimate history-making variation on a similar theme. Not only does it have more than enough narrative to go around. It is blessed with Helen Mirren, lusciously luminous even with aging makeup as Maria Altmann. Revelations cause this shrewd yet cultured octogenarian, Holocaust survivor and Los Angeles transplant to decide 60 years after the fact to initiate her own personal recovery mission of masterpieces snatched from her family’s stately Vienna apartment during the Nazi annexation of Austria.
At this magnificent point in her career, Mirren doesn’t even need a crown anymore to exude majesty. She is in charge of all her faculties as a performer and can’t help but draw our attention, whether it’s her character’s clipped Old World accent or how she slowly unveils her growing resolve to see her goal through despite the odds.
Gilding the script, which strings together multiple story strands surrounding Maria’s eventual landmark legal case that would allow reparation to Jewish descendants, is a mother lode of platitudinous sentiment that will likely prove pleasing to the masses but will irk those more cynically inclined. In addition, the welcome indulgence in the photographic splendor of Viennese streets scenes, architecture and interiors provide a gorgeous distraction from a couple unfortunate acting choices, a few too many officious authority types standing in Maria’s way and a half-hearted escape sequence.
True, matters do drag in the latter stages when the plot boils down to a courtroom procedural that is so drawn out that it relies on regular updates on how many months have passed since the previous scene. Although a portion that plays out in the Supreme Court allows British actor Jonathan Pryce to provide a show-stopping take on Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
At least “Woman in Gold” quickly produces an enticing visual hook by opening with the creation of the central object of contention: “The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” the shimmering jewel of a painting by Gustav Klimt that inspires the film’s title and functions as a muse that hauntingly hovers over the proceedings. This so-called “Mona Lisa” of Austria—the subject of which was Maria’s aunt, whose husband owned the piece after she died years before the war—ended up being the main tourist attraction in the collection hanging in Vienna’s Belvedere Museum. No way would the government nor the institution’s overtly snide curator portrayed here let Maria have her way without a protracted fight.
The movie begins in earnest when Maria finds letters among her late sister’s effects that mention the paintings. She calls upon J. Randol Schoenberg, a friend’s struggling lawyer son and grandson of famed Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg who is deep in debt, has a wife and infant to support and is starting a job. Hiding behind nerd-specs, a closely cropped hairstyle and a wall of social awkwardness, Ryan Reynolds might seem a strange choice for Dame Helen to commandingly cajole. But while they aren’t exactly Oscar and Felix (or even Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the similarly structured “Philomena”), they do strike some odd couple chemistry now and then as she agrees to break her vow of never returning and accompany him to her homeland in order to seek restitution and justice. For her, it’s less about money—and the works are worth many, many millions—and more about righting a grievously overlooked wrong.
It’s kind of quaintly adorable how Randy, as he is called, is taken aback when the aristocratic Maria tries to buy him off with homemade strudel (the old “I made it just for you” ploy). However, Reynolds is unfortunately saddled with Katie Holmes as his wife, whose function is to vacillate from smiling and supportive to scowling and scolding as required. While his light touch is often appreciated, the actor is less convincing when his character undergoes his own spiritual awakening after visiting Vienna’s Holocaust memorial and breaks down in tears while recalling his own ancestors who suffered persecution.
Several noteworthy supporting players are barely allowed the chance to make any impact. After his breakout in “Rush,” Daniel Bruhl should by all rights be beyond the type of foreign journalist ally role that he is stuck with here. And Charles Dance seems to still be looking down his nose and doing his finger-wagging bit from “The Imitation Game” as the head of Randy’s law firm.
Interestingly enough, a better match for Mirren is someone who never even shares the screen with her. As the young Maria in flashbacks, Tatiana Maslany, the spitfire star of the sci-fi TV series “Orphan Black,” beautifully mirrors Mirren’s regal essence in her facial expressions and body language, with her hair helpfully echoing the character’s late-life style.
Speaking German with subtitles, Maslany single-handedly enlivens these passages to Vienna in the ‘30s, although she and Max Irons as opera-singing husband Fritz make for a pretty pair. Oddly missing are any references to Fritz having been sent to Dachau or that the couple had four children. There are, however, some rather effective depictions of abuse and humiliation heaped publicly upon the Jewish citizens while gleeful crowds cheer on the Nazis.
While Mirren unquestioningly rules this roost, one cast member’s late arrival onscreen did get the audience murmuring in recognition. Namely, Lady Grantham herself—Elizabeth McGovern—who appears as a judge during one of the key moments in the legal case. One can assume that the “Downton Abbey” star took the slim part as a favor for her husband, who happens to be the director. Although her actions at least provide Mirren with a reason to juicily observe: “I always thought there should be more women judges.” Then again, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) showed up in “The Monuments Men.” Let’s just say she fares better here than he did in there.
Randol Schoenberg (pictured with Maria Altmann) was the co-founding partner of Burris, Schoenberg & Walden, LLP, where he handled a number of complex business litigation matters, specializing in cases involving looted art and the recovery of property stolen by the Nazi authorities during the Holocaust. He won the return of five famous Klimt paintings for his client, Maria Altmann, as portrayed by actor Ryan Reynolds in the 2014 film Woman in Gold. In 2007, Mr. Schoenberg received the California Lawyer Attorney of the Year award for outstanding achievement in the field of litigation. He also received the 2006 Jurisprudence Award from the Anti-Defamation League and the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award from the American Jewish Congress. Mr. Schoenberg graduated from Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics in 1988 and a certificate in European Cultural Studies. In 1991, he received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Southern California, where he presently teaches a course in Art and Cultural Property Law.Mr. Schoenberg served as President of Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust from 2005 through 2015, during which time the museum constructed its award-winning new building in Pan Pacific Park. He has also served on the board of the Los Angeles Opera, Sinai Akiba Academy, Southwest Chamber Music Society, Choral Society of Southern California, and the L.A. Jewish Symphony. Mr. Schoenberg is an avid genealogist and has lectured internationally at numerous Jewish genealogy conferences. He is a volunteer curator on Geni.com, and one of Geni’s most active users, managing about 150,000 profiles. He is a board member of JewishGen and the Co-Founder of JewishGen’s Austria-Czech Special Interest Group. He founded and moderates the Jewish Genealogy Portal group on Facebook, with over 19,000 members, the largest Jewish genealogy group in existence. He also administers the Schoenberg FamilyTree DNA Project and Zeisel FamilyTree DNA Project. Mr. Schoenberg is the author of the Beginner’s Guide to Austrian-Jewish Genealogy and the co-author of Getting Started with Czech-Jewish Genealogy.