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“Woman in Gold” – a BBC movie about an art battle with Tacoma ties – opens at The Grand Cinema

Big-name movies don’t often have Tacoma ties but with “Woman in Gold” that’s just what South Sounders will get.

The dramatized story of an elderly World War II refugee who, six decades later, fights the Austrian government to take back her family’s Nazi-seized Klimt paintings continues in real life with the protagonist’s son, Peter Altmann, a long-time Tacoman.

The movie, directed by Simon Curtis and starring Helen Mirren, was released April 1 and will be screened starting Friday at The Grand Cinema in Tacoma.

Altmann will speak Thursday in Gig Harbor Civic Center and Saturday at The Grand about the film, his family story and the importance of righting wrongs.

Why does his family story have such appeal?

“There are so many aspects,” he said. “First the painting, which is the symbol and fabric that brings it all together — why is art worth so much? Then you add in the Nazis, the misappropriation of belongings by the government, the epic legal battle of restitution and what that means.”

And it helps that the story has such a public, million-dollar face: the Gustav Klimt painting known for years as “Woman in Gold.”

Altmann’s mother, Maria, grew up in a wealthy Vienna family, in a luxurious apartment with plenty of art.

In 1907, her uncle, Ferdinand, commissioned Klimt to paint his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The resulting portrait, with Adele’s heavy-lidded eyes and elegant black coiffure in a sea of shimmering gold shapes, later became one of art’s most known paintings — the “Mona Lisa of Austria,” as the film puts it.

In 1938, the portrait was hanging in Altmann’s family home. With Austria annexed by Germany and Nazi fever running high, the Jewish family realized they had to flee.

Maria and her husband escaped, but the Nazis illegally seized many family assets, including five Klimt works. The portrait of Bloch-Bauer remained in the government’s possession, eventually displayed as a national treasure in the Belvedere Museum.

Fast-forward to 1998, when Maria Altmann decided to hire a young lawyer to get her family’s paintings back. The legal battle took years but in 2006, Maria was awarded the five Klimt works.

She sold “Woman in Gold” to cosmetics scion Ronald Lauder for $135 million on the condition it hang permanently on view in New York’s Neue Galerie.

The other works sold at auction for $191 million, with the money divided among the surviving family members — including Peter Altmann, who used the money to buy a new house and a boat.

Maria Altmann died in 2011, at age 94. Since then, her story has generated three documentaries. “Woman in Gold,” with a high-profile and international distribution, will get her story the most attention.

And Peter Altmann is fine with that.

“What impressed me was that they stayed as close as they could (to the real events),” said 70-year-old Altmann, who saw the film last month at a private screening at Seattle’s Holocaust Center and at the New York premiere.

“When they buy the story, then they can change it any way they want and it looks to the public as if it’s true. But we weren’t overly concerned, because the BBC is behind it and they are a very moral organization. The intent was to do good.”

While there’s some sensationalizing for the sake of film drama, Altmann said, most of the facts are true. The biggest deviation was possibly the escape scene, when young Maria and her husband Fritz flee Vienna just weeks after their wedding.

On screen, there’s a hand-clenching series of near-misses as the couple runs down sepia-toned streets full of shooting Nazis, under laundry lines and into an escape car, narrowly sliding by airport security to board a plane in bleak, snowy darkness.

In reality, Altmann said, his parents faked a dentist appointment and caught the next plane — no shooting involved.

But, he points out, the Nazi scenes — shot as misty flashbacks for the elderly Maria as she encounters Viennese landmarks for the first time since her youth — did a lot to expand his knowledge of the Holocaust, which until now was limited to the microcosm of his parents’ stories.

“They were like most survivors,” Altmann said. “They didn’t want to talk about it. But by the time I grew up, the details came out.

“My father was actually arrested and went to Dachau (a Nazi concentration camp in Germany) … as a political prisoner. It was before the Final Solution so there were no gas chambers yet. But there was a lot of cruelty.

“They would have them dig a hole for 12 hours, then fill it back in, to break them down. My father would dig it a little differently, like building a sandcastle in reverse (to help him keep going).”

The other thing Altmann likes about “Woman in Gold” is Mirren’s portrayal of his mother, no matter what the critics say.

They slashed the film after its February debut at the Berlin Film Festival. The Guardian called it kitschy, criticizing the sitcom wisecracks and the “road-trip” relationship between Maria and her lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds).

But Mirren brings to Maria a perfectly Austrian blend of dignity and grace that her son says is dead on.

“Mirren did a stunning job,” he said. “My mother had an extraordinary charm that was one-of-a-kind, but we couldn’t ask for a more dignified actress to play her.”

For as far as the movie being just an art history film, “Woman in Gold” goes far beyond dusty legality and art appreciation.

Actress Tatiana Maslany brings out the depth of relationships between the young Maria, her aunt Adele and her stoically gracious parents, with a powerful farewell scene.

Daniel Brühl adds complexity to an otherwise stock character — the intrepid journalist on a personal ideological quest.

The camera-work, shot mostly on location in Los Angeles (where Maria eventually lived) and Vienna, plays up the characters of the two cities: straightforward angles for L.A., imposing aerial or upward shots for Vienna’s stately historic buildings.

And Klimt’s painting is framed as both a highly personal memento fraught with painful memories, and the esteemed symbol of a national culture.

Finally, for the character of Randy Schoenberg (coincidentally the grandson of the famous composer, who also fled Nazi rule) and for Peter Altmann, it’s overwhelmingly a Holocaust story.

“The past,” as Schoenberg says on screen, “asking something of the present.”

“It’s complicated: How do you right a wrong committed so long ago?” Altmann said. “Often they don’t get righted.”

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