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Mar 02

New film to follow “The Monuments Men” story with Helen Mirren to be cast as Maria Altmann

Helen Mirren Cast in Gustav Klimt Retrieval Drama

Helen Mirren Cast in Gustav Klimt Retrieval Drama

Maria Altmann as a young woman in Austria.

(Courtesy Eric Minh Swenson via Vimeo)
by Graham Fuller. This article first appeared in BlouinArtInfo on 2/21/14

Helen Mirren has been cast as Maria Altmann in “The Woman in Gold,” which will follow “The Monuments Men” as the next film to depict the fight to retrieve art treasures looted by the Nazis. Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”) will direct the drama from a script by the playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell (“The Pride”).

Screen Daily that the Weinstein Company has boarded the project, which has been launched by Britain’s Origin Pictures and BBC Films. Production will begin later this year.

 Born into the Jewish Bloch-Bauer family in Vienna in 1916, Mrs. Altmann fled Nazi Austria with her husband Fritz, an opera singer, and settled in America in 1940. The film will tell the story of the successful legal battle she fought in her eighties to retrieve from the Austrian state five Gustav Klimt paintings that the Nazis seized from her uncle, the sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, after the Anschluss.

It was he who had commissioned Klimt to paint his wife Adele, who duly sat for “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), the acme of Klimt’s golden phase, and the less celebrated “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” (1912). She died of meningitis at the age of 43 in 1925; in her will, she wrote, “I kindly ask my husband” to donate the paintings to the Austrian State Gallery. However, she had overlooked that he had left his estate to his nephews and nieces, including Mrs. Altmann, as was revealed upon his death as a refugee in Zurich in 1945.

William Grimes‘s 2011 obituary of Mrs. Altmann in the New York Times reported that in 1998 she “became aware of documents in the Austrian government archives uncovered by Hubertus Czernin, a journalist, who…had also, in a series of exposés, described the nefarious practice under which the Austrian government returned certain looted artworks only if the owners agreed to sign away their rights to other seized art.

“Under pressure to re-examine its Nazi past, the government passed a law in 1998 nullifying such agreements, and the ministry of culture opened its archives to researchers for the first time,” Grimes added. “Mr. Czernin, examining records at the Austrian Gallery, concluded that Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had not donated the Klimt paintings to the museum.”

In 1999, Mrs. Altmann and her lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, secured the return of 16 Klimt drawings of Adele Bloch-Bauer and 19 sets of porcelain. The following year, she sued the Austrian government in California. The case went to the Supreme Court, which, Grimes wrote, allowed her to pursue her claim under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Gambling on a binding arbitration decision in Austrian, Mrs. Altmann learned in January 2006 that the three-judge panel had awarded her ownership of the five Klimts.

The billionaire and philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, who co-founded New York’s Neue Galerie, purchased “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for the museum for $135 million in June 2006; it is the only one of the five paintings that can be viewed by the public. “Adele Bloch-Bauer II” was sold to a private owner for $88 million that November. The other three paintings also disappeared into private collections, realizing $104.7 million. The sitter’s wish that her portraits should be available for all to see, and her niece’s same wish for all five of the paintings, has been denied.

On the announcement of the four “other” Klimts being put up for auction in 2006, the New York Times’s Michael Kimmelman observed, “How sad — if unsurprising — to hear that the heirs of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer are indeed cashing in, as planned, and selling four Klimts at Christie’s in November. A story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust has devolved into yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market.” Kimmelman noted that, of the four pictures, “a forest scene of birch trees is the real gem, and a bargain at $20 million: an Edenic mix of sharp realism and Pointillist dots receding into deep space.”

Mrs. Altmann’s story has been told in three documentaries. It was included in “The Rape of Europa” (2006), based on the Lynn H. Nicholas book, and is the subject of “Stealing Klimt” (2007) and “Adele’s Wish” (2008). The Screen Daily article notes that “The Woman in Gold” will be a period drama, which raises the possibility that actresses will be sought to play Adele Bloch-Bauer and Mrs. Altmann at the time of her escape from Austria.

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