Maria Altmann has had some year. On January 15 — one month before her 90th birthday — a Viennese court ordered the Republic of Austria to give up all claims to five Gustav Klimt paintings and return them to their rightful owner, Altmann and her family, who are based in Los Angeles. Then, Altmann — whose aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was the subject and owner of the paintings — became the beneficiary of a record-breaking sale when cosmetic magnate Ronald Lauder offered her $135 million for one of the paintings. Now, 99 years after it was painted, the portrait’s extraordinary history is set to make its cinematic debut in a new documentary titled “Portrait of Adele.”
“It’s a true David and Goliath story,” said Ilana Linden, the film’s Canadian director and co-producer, who was born in Israel to Holocaust survivor parents. “Here we have an old but still feisty woman emerge victorious in her pursuit of justice over a country which resisted her claim for so many decades.”
The filmmaker intends to take a long view of the painting’s history, rather than simply telling the story of the restitution of the illegally held artwork. She plans to begin with portrayals of turn-of-the-century Vienna, where Adele Bloch-Bauer — the wife of a Czech sugar magnate who owned a castle outside of Prague frequently visited by Klimt — ran a salon that became a magnet for the musical and artistic elite. She died in 1925 at the age of 43, long before Hitler came to power. It was later that the history of the Bloch-Bauer family became tragically connected to the Nazis.
“Not only did the Nazis steal the magnificent antiques and paintings, but they also took over the sugar factory the family owned, which became the Nazi railroad headquarters,” Linden explained. “This castle became the headquarters of Nazi chief Reinhard Heydrich, where he planned the Final Solution of the Jews.”
When the portrait was featured in a Klimt exhibition organized by the Nazis in Vienna in 1943, Adele’s identity was hidden, replaced with a placard reading simply, “Lady in Gold.”
The film will track the portrait’s creation, its looting, the discovery of the theft and the legal battle to have it returned to its rightful heirs — what Linden calls a “sweeping romantic epic of loss and redemption.”
Linden says they have one more trip to make to Vienna to complete filming the documentary. Meanwhile, the painting “Portrait of Adele” went on display July 13 at Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York.
Hindi Diamond is the author of ‘Gringa: My Love Affair With Panama’ (Writers Publishing Cooperative, 2005).
LADY LUCK: The history of Gustav Klimt’s ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I,’ recently bought by cosmetic magnate Ronald Lauder for a record-shattering $135 million, will be the subject of a new documentary by a Canadian filmmaker.