Spry nonagenarian Maria Altmann, a Viennese Jew who escaped to California to avoid the Holocaust, is the charismatic heart of “Stealing Klimt,” a straightforward and engrossing account of how Altmann doggedly set out to reclaim five precious paintings the Nazis stole from her family in 1938. Propelled by eloquent talking heads, this detective tale brims with juicy plot points exposing how 20th-century crimes continue to create unsightly bulges under 21st-century rugs. Originally destined for TV, the docu is enjoying a theatrical rollout in Germany and Austria, and has been sold extensively worldwide.
Elements of serendipity, determination, karma and capitalism put a fresh, galvanizing face on the aggressively matter-of-fact despoilation of Europe’s Jews. As one law professor in the film puts it, “The Holocaust was not only one of the greatest murders in history, it was also one of the greatest thefts in history.”
David-and-Goliath saga includes a Rothschild Stradivarius, a bold gesture by Hitler’s nephew and willful obfuscation at the highest levels of the Austrian government, with the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately getting into the act against the wishes of President George W. Bush. Docu’s fiction-worthy story arc culminates in a record-setting 2006 auction.
Five canvases painted by Gustav Klimt — two portraits of Altmann’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, commissioned and paid for by Adele’s husband Ferdinand between 1900 and 1907, along with three distinctive landscapes — were to be inherited by Ferdinand’s nephew and three nieces, among them Maria, who was born in 1916.
Chief among docu’s rewards is the pointed, entertaining interview footage with Altmann, who assumed the world-famous portraits she’d seen as a girl in her aunt and uncle’s palatial Vienna home — a building ironically now occupied by an office of the uncomfortably symbolic Austrian railways — had been bequeathed to the Austrian National Gallery, where museum-goers had viewed the so-called “Woman in Gold” (one of the paintings of Bloch-Bauer) for more than 50 years.
When documents to the contrary surfaced in the late 1990s, naturalized U.S. citizen Maria, with the help of baby-faced American lawyer Randol Schoenberg (grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg) set out to fight City Hall — in this case, the Austrian cultural apparatus and their notion that, as Klimt was a famed Austrian artist, the stolen paintings somehow belonged to Austria. Maria makes no bones about how most Austrians were downright pleased at being forcibly enrolled in the Third Reich when Hitler annexed Austria.
Nearly all documaker Jane Chablani’s efforts to tell the other side of the story were rebuffed by Austrian officials, which should have made the tale uncomfortably lopsided. Instead, the government’s unflattering prevaricating, captured in news footage, helps make such reticence in the face of a concrete legacy doubly damning.
There was no reason to believe Maria would emerge the victor, but she’s such a class act, it’s easy to root for her precedent-setting success against phenomenal odds.
Pic’s style, in first feature docu from Chablani (a Canadian working in the U.K.), is run-of-the-mill, but that’s a quibble given the story’s strength.