The story of a protracted legal battle in two countries to recover a piece of Nazi-looted art doesn’t sound like a very promising subject for a movie. But it’s a surprisingly absorbing tale.
Maria Altmann fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1937 with her husband and lived the rest of her life in Los Angeles. In the late 1990s, she decided to seek recovery of Klimt’s painting of her aunt Adele, which the rest of the world knows as the Woman in Gold. Much of the art misappropriated by the Nazis during the war was not returned to its rightful owners — this painting was hanging at the Austrian national gallery in Vienna. At the time Altmann began her suit, there wasn’t much precedent for suing to recover such art. It wasn’t even clear that a private citizen had standing to pursue such a suit against a foreign government — Altmann’s attorney had to fight that issue all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Although the legal part of the tale is well told (and Helen Mirren does her usual fine job as the old Maria), the most interesting parts of the movie are the flashbacks to the early days of the Anschluss, featuring the wonderful Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black!) as the young Maria. The Nazis held very wealthy families like Maria’s under a form of house arrest, while they inventoried their assets and forced them to sign away their property. The looting of the apartment itself, which the family witnessed, was almost an afterthought to the systematic theft of their entire fortune.
The movie benefits from staying pretty close to the historical record, including some of the odd details which would be unbelievable if they hadn’t actually been true. Maria’s American lawyer really was the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg (another refugee from the Nazis). Adele’s famous diamond choker really did wind up on the neck of Goering’s wife. And Maria and her husband really did begin their successful escape from Nazi-occupied Austria by flying into Germany (they later crossed the border into what was then still unoccupied Holland, thence to America).