Dame Helen Mirren says she only takes on roles when she feels connected to them. In her latest film, The Woman In Gold, she definitely connected with real life subject Maria Altmann an elderly Jewish survivor of World War II, who sues the Austrian government for the return of artwork the Nazis stole from her family.
To give you some history behind Maria's (and so many hundreds of thousands of others) in 1938, Vienna became the scene of the first big attack against Jews by Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels called for organized violence against Jews, their homes, businesses and synagogues. The two days of rioting that followed became known as Kristallnacht – and is now seen by many as the start of the Holocaust.
Official figures claim almost 100 Jews were killed on November 9 and 10, 1938, but the true number of deaths is certainly much higher. Most of Vienna’s 94 synagogues were destroyed. The Nazis also set about plundering Jewish homes and businesses, imposing a huge fine on the community that would be equivalent to 10 billion today. One of the homes raided belonged to Maria Altmann’s wealthy family, who owned a sugar refinery and befriended Sigmund Freud and many of the other leading Austrians of the day. Their precious paintings, jewellery, and her father’s prized Stradivarius cello were all looted by Adolph Hitler's troops.
Most valuable of all was The Woman in Gold, a remarkable 1907 gold leaf painting by celebrated artist Gustav Klimt . It was not just a masterpiece, it was a portrait of Maria’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was of priceless personal value to the family.
60 years later the painting became the subject of a remarkable tug of war as Maria and a young lawyer named Randy Schoenberg, a friend of the family, forced the Austrian government to return the painting.
Mirren who was honored playing Maria Altmann says she hopes the film will help audiences remember the horrors of the holocaust. The Woman in Gold also stars Canada's own Ryan Reynolds as Randy Schoenberg who ultimately helps her recover the priceless painting.
I spoke with Dame Helen Mirren via satellite from New York about playing Maria Altmann, working with Ryan Reynolds, having another talented Canadian Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) play her as a young woman and being back on the Broadway stage. I also spoke with Simon Curtis who directed the film.(that interview immediately follows).