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Belated justice: Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in “Woman In Gold” (image: BBC Films/Weinstein Company)

I don’t think I have hated a city so quickly and so thoroughly as I hated Vienna when I arrived in the mid-1990s. To me it was a chocolate-covered corpse. I had never had any trouble about visiting Germany. I admired the Germans for coming to terms with the legacies of Communism and Nazism and building a democratic republic. But Austria was something else.

It had not come to terms with its past. So great was its pretence that it had been Hitler’s victim rather than his collaborator, that as late as 1992 its president was Kurt Waldheim,  a Nazi officer who at the very least had witnessed war crimes in the Balkans then hid his complicity as his postwar career blossomed. Austria refused to pay compensation to the Nazis’ victims, and from 1970 onwards refused to investigate a remarkably large number of Austrians who were energetic Nazis. When my parents toured the Austrian Alps as a young couple in 1960, an approving woman told my stunned mother, “What a strong, tall husband, you have. He would have been in the SS in the war.”

My wife could not understand my almost physical revulsion. “There is so much to see,” she said. She was right. In the Belvedere and other galleries, Austria had a collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, which were among the most beautiful and erotic art modern Europe had produced. I saw two portraits of the Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer: one from 1912 in fashionable dress against a backdrop of flower-covered wallpaper; and one of her surrounded by gold leaf, which is so famous I barely need describe it.

The fate of the portraits and of three Klimt landscapes is the subject of two films. Woman in Gold has just transferred to DVD. In it, Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, who was about to start life with her husband in Vienna when the Nazis took power. As an old woman, living in Los Angeles, she discovers papers about her family’s failed attempt to persuade the Austrian government to return the five Klimts the Nazis looted from their apartment. She hires a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Arnold). Their case appears hopeless but Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, wins the right to contest Austrian ownership at the US Supreme Court. They fly to Vienna. A left-wing journalist finds the documents, which show that the Austrian state had no right to hold on to the pictures, and an arbitration panel agrees to return them.

The success of the film has led to film festivals reviving its inspiration, the 2007 documentary Stealing Klimt. It opens with words which sum up mid-20th-century Europe: “The Holocaust was not only one of the greatest murders in history, it was also one of the greatest thefts.” The real Schoenberg describes how the Austrian authorities did everything possible to prevent families reclaiming their property, and his own almost physical revulsion when he toured Viennese antique shops and wondered where all their stock had come from.  The appeal of the story is obvious. Against the odds, a woman running a dress shop in Los Angeles revisits the horror of her youth, and belatedly finds justice.

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October 31st, 2015
2:10 AM
I don't think you're right, AnGiogoir. I believe that the union of Austria with Germany couldn't really be separated from support for the Nazi regime. And all those Austrians greeting the German troops with Nazi salutes and hailing Hitler in the Heldenplatz, would belie your version of history. In fact, I heard that the Austrian treatment of Jews in the streets after the Anschluss was so cruel that even some German soldiers were taken aback. AnGiogoir, I you're indulging in wishful thinking.

August 27th, 2015
3:08 PM
The author's perception is incorrect. Although Austrians welcomed union with Germany, they were not Nazi supporters. In fact, the Nazi's lowest support was in the Catholic areas of Germany and Austria.

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