Richard Nisley

The Mona Lisa of Austria
History - World Released - Jul 01, 2019
In college I learned about the Nazi treatment of the European Jews. It's a harrowing and shameful story of racial prejudice run amuck. The movie "Woman in Gold" illustrates the effect it had on one Viennese family after the so-called Anschluss, the brutal adoption of Austria into the German state.

Since taking power in Germany in 1933, Hitler's discrimination of the Jews had been gradual. The arrests and confiscation of property didn't begin immediately, but over time. By 1938, the year of the Anschluss, Jewish discrimination had been institutionalized and for Austrian Jews the impact was felt immediately. The arrests and stealing of property took place within the first 24 hours of the German war machine parading triumphantly around Vienna's grand boulevard, the Ringstrasse. High on their list were wealthy Jewish families and the jewels and art objects they possessed, which the Nazi thugs looted gleefully. In this movie the family is the Bloch-Bauers, and the art object in question is the gilt-laden "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer", by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. At some point, the portrait moved to the Belvedere Art Gallery in Vienna and was renamed "Woman in Gold." By 1998, the time the movie begins, the "Woman in Gold" had become so much a part of the Viennese consciousness that it was considered to be the "Mona Lisa of Austria." In other words, stolen or not, the Austrian Republic wasn't about to part with it.

The movie is based on the life of Maria Altmann, who to avoid being arrested by the Nazis escaped with her husband to America in 1938. As the movie begins Ms. Altmann is widowed and living in Los Angeles. After the death of her older sister (and having found a photograph of Klimt's painting among her possessions), she decides she wants the portrait back. She enlists a young lawyer named Randy Schoenberg (the grandson of another Jewish immigrant, the world-famous composer Arnold Schoenberg). Together they fight the government of Austria for almost a decade to reclaim the "Woman in Gold". While the legal battle takes place in various courtrooms, the fight is personal; to Ms. Altmann the "Lady in Gold" is more than a famous work of art; it's a portrait of her aunt whom she remembers fondly, a family keepsake that once hung in the living room of her family's Vienna apartment.

Altman and Schoenberg begin their quest by traveling to Austria, hoping the management of the Belvedere Art Gallery will be sympathetic to her cause and return the painting. This turns out not to be the case. So they turn to the courts for redress, which ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. Altmann wins, but the victory does not get her the beloved portrait back. Ultimately, her attorney decides to pursue the matter through arbitration in Vienna. Against the odds, they win, and Aunt Adele, who died in 1925 (and whose image remains forever immortalized in the gilt-laden portrait), can now cross the Atlantic with Maria Altmann.

Back in America, Ms Altmann accepts an offer of a whopping $135 million for the portrait, by Ronald Lauder, son of famed cosmetics entrepreneur Estee Lauder. Her only condition is that the "Lady in Gold" be on permanent display. You can see it today in New York's Neue Gallerie.

Maria Altmann died in 2011, age 94, having donated most of her money from sale of the painting to charity, and to a holocaust museum in Los Angeles.

The movie features a series of disturbing flashbacks in which Ms Altmann recalls the Nazi rape of Vienna. What did the Austrian Jews do to deserve such treatment? "For the crime of being Jewish," says Ms Altmann tartly. Maria's Uncle (Ferdinand) saw it coming and immediately fled to the West. By the time her family realized the gravity of the threat it was nearly too late. Indeed, her mother and father never did escape Austria and like many unfortunate Jews perished in a Nazi death camp. Still haunted by the memories of her mother and father and their tender final parting, the film also chronicles Maria's escape (with her husband) to Cologne, which eventually led them to America and to freedom.

The film stars Helen Mirren as feisty Maria Altmann, Ryan Reynolds as her quick- witted attorney Randy Schoenberg, and Daniel Brühl as the likable Viennese investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who befriends and assists them with the recovery of the "Lady in Gold" portrait.

In one scene, while awaiting the decision of the arbitration board, Altmann, Schoenberg and Czernin wait on a park bench; in the backdrop is the world’s tallest ferris wheel, the iconic Riesenrad, which, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Big Ben in London, has come to symbolize a great city–Vienna. If you've seen "The Third Man" which was shot amid the ruins of post-World War Two Vienna, you'll recognize the Riesenrad, which was featured in one of that movie's key scenes.

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