“I think in some ways it’s the story of the 20th century,” says director Simon Curtis about what attraced him about the subject of his new film “Woman in Gold.” This compelling drama tells the true story of Maria Altman (Helen Mirren), an elderly Jewish refugee who took on the Austrian government to reclaim family possessions seized by the Nazis during WWII. Among them, Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” the subject of whom was her beloved aunt.
“The painting and Maria were both created in Vienna at the start of the 20th century when it was arguably the greatest city in the world,” explains Curtis in our exclusive audio interview (listen below). “The crucible for so many great ideas in the arts and sciences and psychoanalysis…and both, in this curious journey, ended up in the United States, the painting in New York and Maria in Los Angeles, just around the corner from 20th Century Fox.”
Altman’s journey took her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where with the help of her inexperienced yet determined lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she was able to retrieve the treasured painting. “It’s obviously a complex discussion,” admits Curtis about the issue of art restitution, “and I think every case has to be taken in its own merit, but I would say in this case, yes, it’s a world famous painting, but Maria’s uncle commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint her aunt, and it was a painting that was on the wall of the family home, so it had incredible personal meaning. So I completely understand that when she was the last person alive from that extraordinary community, she wanted to fight the battle she fought.”
The film intercuts between Altman’s life in 1990s Los Angeles and 1930s Vienna, both before and during the Nazi occupation. “The film is about a woman who lived her first twenty years in Vienna, speaking German, who was forced to leave and relocate, and ended up eventually in California, obviously speaking English. We wanted to give a sense of what she’d left behind, and the idea is that she has sort of suppressed a lot of those memories just in order to get through her existence, and she is forced to confront and remember that sequence of events as she goes on the journey, and as we go on the journey we see what happened.”
Curtis guided Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh to Oscar nominations for “My Week with Marilyn” (2011), and could do the same for Mirren, a previous Best Actress winner for “The Queen.” She was always the director’s first choice for the role because, “in some ways, on a superficial level, she’s relocated and lived decades in Los Angeles from Europe, but…as an actress, she just brings so much wit and humanity and, in this case, an anger to the part that I thought was really interesting.”
Curtis received a Primetime Emmy nomination for Best Children’s Programming for “Pride” (2004) and a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film for “My Week with Marilyn.” Check out our full interview below for more on how he brought “Woman in Gold” to the screen.