Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren was typically gracious Friday as she received a top Jewish citation for her new film role as a woman fighting to reclaim Nazi-looted art.
WJC President Ronald S. Lauder presented the thespian with the WJC Recognition Award for her work in the film “Woman in Gold.” Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, who fought the Austrian government for years to secure the return of five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen from her Jewish family during World War II.
“Being a part of this film and preserving Maria Altmann’s legacy has been a truly exceptional experience from the start,” Mirren said as she accepted the award.
“I am utterly moved to receive this award from the World Jewish Congress, an organization that does such important work all over the globe in advocating for Jewish rights.”
The eponymous “woman” is Altmann’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, who is featured in a 1907 portrait by Klimt which hangs today in New York’s Neue Galerie.
Bloch-Bauer was part of a prominent Austrian-Jewish family, patrons of the arts whose belongings were plundered by the Nazis. Among the works stolen were two portraits of Adele by Klimt, commissioned by her husband. After World War II, surviving members of the Bloch-Bauer family escaped to the United States. Their artwork remained behind.
In 2000 Altmann sued the Austrian government to force it to return the painting to the family, but Vienna, which considered Klimt’s painting a national treasure, put up a lengthy fight.
In the film, directed by Simon Curtis, Mirren plays Altmann as an elderly woman living in Los Angeles who enlists the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, a California lawyer played by Ryan Reynolds, to accompany her back to Vienna to take on the Austrian authorities.
“The history of the ‘Woman in Gold’ painting exemplifies the immense suffering, painful loss and, for a prolonged period, the injustice that many Jews were subjected to during the 20th century,” said Lauder. “With the opening of this new movie, audiences can learn about the second half of the Nazi-looted art story: the postwar art grab by governments and museums that willfully continued the Nazi theft, both by hiding the art from the rightful owners or their heirs and by fighting the victims in court to keep the artworks.
“Thanks to Helen Mirren’s stunning performance – which really electrified this issue – the international public will learn about this legacy of World War II which still hasn’t been addressed properly by many governments and museums.”
Altmann finally won her battle in 2006 and died five years later aged 94.
Mirren has called her “a remarkable, wonderful, funny, sexy, witty, humane…a great, great woman.”