Randol E. Schoenberg is an attorney who represented Maria Altmann in a historic case against the Austrian government. Schoenberg and Altmann successfully sued the Austrian government and won restitution of five incredibly valuable Gustav Klimt paintings that had belonged to Altmann’s family before they were seized by the Nazis. The two are portrayed by Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren in the major motion picture, Woman in Gold. Jlife recently had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Schoenberg about this landmark case and the making of the film.
What was it like to hear that this truly remarkable story was going to be given the “Hollywood Treatment” and that you would be portrayed by a movie star like Ryan Reynolds? Well it was a long process, so it wasn’t all at once. The story was bought by BBC Films so it wasn’t going to be completely “Hollywood,” a little bit European also. They hired a screenwriter who came and met with me, and worked on the screenplay and then when Helen Mirren saw it and decided that she wanted to do the film, that’s when it really look off. So then later, they found Ryan Reynolds, I think it was actually Harvey Weinstein who brought him in. When they called me about it, I sort of knew who he was, I think, from The Proposal, but I like to joke that I’m not exactly his demographic… but when I mention it to women or the kids’ babysitters they swoon. It turns out he’s actually a very versatile actor who works really hard, and does a lot of different types of films. And he did a great job.
Did they consult you on minor details for the film, such as what you might have worn or what car you were likely to be driving? It’s funny, I only met Ryan Reynolds on the last day of shooting here in L.A. I got dressed in khakis and a blue shirt and went down to the set on a rooftop in Beverly Hills. They were shooting the scene and then he came over to me and he pointed at me and pointed at himself, and he was wearing the exact same thing! And he said, “Nailed it!” And it was totally unplanned but I guess they knew how a boring lawyer dresses and they dressed him accordingly, so I thought that was really funny.
You are the son of a prominent Judge and the grandson of a world-famous composer. Was part of the reason why you took this case, fully knowing how arduous and drawn-out it was likely to be, because you thought it would be the deed that could secure your own legacy apart from your accomplished relatives? I don’t know about that. They made me out [in the film] to be a little more naive than I was, obviously. I grew up very aware of my own past. Maria Altman was a very close family friend, she and her husband Fritz were the only non-immediate family members at my grandparents birthdays. They were sort of fixtures, and so when she asked me to help her it was like representing my own grandmother. My grandparents had passed away and she was sort of the last one left of that group, so it really had nothing to do with becoming famous, but representing these people who had become family.
Ms. Altmann must have been shocked that a few decades after the systematic murder of Austria’s Jewish community, a painting of a Jewish woman could be hailed as an emblematic masterpiece of Austrian art. Do you think Ms. Altmann would have been as motivated to reclaim the painting if it had not become a symbol or icon for Austria? I don’t know…I think so. I think they knew all along that…Klimt was, in his day, the most famous painter in Vienna. It was never an insignificant thing. They knew that Klimt paintings were the pinnacle of that period in Austrian art, so I don’t think there was any change because of that. They’ve always been prized. And I think that’s why Austria played so terribly with the family, with Ferdinand’s heirs, because they were very important and valuable paintings and they wanted to keep them.
You accomplished a feat that most people thought impossible. You facilitated what was “the largest single return, in monetary terms, of Nazi-looted art.” Does this remain the most impactful case you’ve taken on in your career? Well yeah, it would be hard to have anything more significant than this in terms of my, or anybody’s legal career, for that matter. Each of these cases is so particular in the facts, so individual, that it’s hard to compare cases. What does translate is when you have a success like this, it really puts wind in the sails of people trying to do the same thing in other areas. And so I see that continuing now. It’s almost ten years now since the case ended, but people still look at this case as sort of a high watermark and something to reach for in other cases. It’s basically an inspiration more than being a particular precedent that can be used, because, obviously the specifics in the case are going to be different. Klimt’s paintings, this will of Maria’s aunt, of course it’s not gonna come up in other cases. But the fact that you could wage this type of battle over a long period of time and succeed, that was something sort of new. That’s really the continuing legacy of the case.
Was the return of Klimt’s Woman in Gold by the Austrian government to Ms. Altmann an isolated incident, or did it catalyze a larger restoration of looted Nazi artifacts back to their original owners? I think it has been a catalyst. There have been many efforts at various types of restitution since the end of WWII. This is certainly not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, but it stands out because it was so successful.
Thank you for your time.
Perry Fein is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.