The countless number of paintings, sculptures and other art treasures looted by the Nazis before and during WWII remains a delicate issue. Many museums, art dealers and private collectors have come under intense public pressure to return stolen artworks to their original Jewish owners and their families. Very few such works have been returned voluntarily and often this has resulted in lengthy legal battles.
One of the most famous cases involved Maria Altmann, the daughter of a wealthy Austrian Jewish family who fled the Nazis in the late ’30s and whose possessions, including many Gustav Klimt paintings, were subsequently seized by Austrian Nazi authorities. Altmann’s lengthy legal battle to recover the stolen art is the subject of the film “Woman in Gold,” which is in worldwide release. The film stars Helen Mirren as Altmann, who ultimately won her family paintings back in a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“So many people from (WWII) did not receive any justice whatsoever … and so to have one little tiny moment of justice, it is a great thing,” Mirren says. “Partly that’s what the film is about for me. That’s what Maria’s journey was about more than anything. She said, ‘This is right and I’m going to fight for what’s right.’”
Joining Mirren in the cast are Daniel Bruhl, Charles Dance, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern, Tatiana Maslany (as a young Maria) and Ryan Reynolds, who plays Randol Schoenberg, the determined lawyer who helped Altmann win the court case.
As a result of Altmann’s legal triumph, the Austrian government, which had given the paintings to the Belvedere museum in Vienna, was forced to turn over the works to her, including the 1907 Klimt portrait of Altmann’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer from his “gold period,” which gives the film its title. The masterpiece was sold in 2006 to cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a painting.
Maria Altmann died in 2011 at age 94.
Mirren felt deeply moved by the story and recalled viewing one of Klimt’s paintings in the Belvedere Gallery: “There is a Klimt painting of a lady named Amalie Zuckerkandl that currently hangs in the Belvedere gallery. It’s beautiful, and that woman died in a death camp just a few years after that picture had been painted. … I found that just the most emotional thing to see, because now her portrait is on the wall in one of the most important galleries in Austria, and yet that woman died in a death camp. To me that brings together the whole story together in one image.”
When “Woman in Gold” was released in early April, the 69-year-old Mirren had already begun a highly successful and critically lauded performance on Broadway in “The Audience,” which focuses on Queen Elizabeth II’s meetings with her prime ministers through the years (the play is scheduled to run through June 28). It marks the third time that Mirren has played Britain’s reigning monarch, having won an Oscar for her performance in the 2006 film “The Queen.”
I spoke with Mirren about “Woman in Gold” and the confidence that’s become her trademark as a performer.
Helen, do you think Maria Altmann felt that she had finally won some justice when the paintings were finally returned to her? I think she took considerable solace in having won her paintings back. … I’m sure there must have been an incredible feeling of completion for her. Although you can never complete that particular story because so many lives were lost.
Was it particularly satisfying to play a woman of her pride and determination? I was very honored to play her. Maria Altmann was such a remarkable, wonderful, funny, sexy, witty, humane — a great, great woman. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do her justice, because she deserved it. She also didn’t go off and buy a mansion with the money she made from the sale (of the painting of her aunt). She donated a great deal to various charities.
Do you think this kind of film is an important reminder of those families who suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis? Yes. We’re losing the generation who remembers and we’re down to the last few of that generation. It’s incumbent on younger generations to keep those memories alive. (We should also remember) that the same story is being played out all over the world. The activities of Boko Haram, the activities of ISIS and in so many other corners of the world, the same story is being told again and again and again, and people are suffering as we speak. So we mustn’t ever feel we have come to the end of that particular human journey.
Do you see yourself as a trailblazer for women in the sense of having tended to play very strong and confident women over the course of your career? When I first walked onto film sets early in my career, there were virtually no women at all. Things have changed a lot over the last 40 years, although I think women still have some way to go yet, at least in my business.
I’ve been fortunate to play strong women and there is a sense of empowerment to that. I had to fight for respect as an actress coming up in a film world that was and still is heavily dominated by men. I didn’t realize at the time that you had to be this loud, annoying, tub-thumping aggressive kind of person to get anything done. One of the great lessons I learned from my parents was to make my own way in the world and not rely on a man for everything. I still believe that the greatest gift every girl can have is economic independence.
You seem to still project such an air of confidence and enthusiasm for life. Is that your natural perspective on the world? Age has a way of making you think less about yourself. I’ve long ago stopped worrying about selfish things: how I look, what others think of me. When you’re younger, you tend to think that you’re the center of the universe. Eventually you learn to enjoy how others help make your world a more interesting place.
I enjoy being older — I think it’s pretty cool, in fact. I remember seeing a fortune-teller in my early 20s who predicted I would have success, but only in my late 40s. And that’s exactly what happened. Of course, when I heard that it would take me some time to make my mark, I was naturally a bit disappointed. But then I thought, “OK, just relax and do what you enjoy.”
Your screen characters project such an air of confidence. Are you a very cool customer when you first walk onto a set or go on stage? Oh, no! I still get nervous. Especially the first night of any play. It’s very nerve-wracking and you feel sick. Even when I’m beginning a film, I still feel nervous until we start shooting the first scenes and then you feel comfortable.
Do people still find you intimidating? Sometimes being intimidating is an advantage, even though it gets me into trouble once in a while. But if you don’t worry too much about how others perceive you, then you are able to live with a great deal more freedom and ease. You feel less inhibited and constrained by all the perceptions that you wonder that other people have of you. I’ve always been a believer in the notion that if you want to make your mark on the world you’ve got to just go out and do it. Don’t be shy, be adventurous!
Were you always that way? No. I had to learn to stand up for myself. I was very insecure in my 20s and only gradually did I learn how the world works and how to find my way around it. I had to go through some tough experiences before I really understood myself and how to play the game you need to play to get ahead. But once you figure it all out then life is much easier and the world becomes your playground.