MOVIE

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“She did have a sort of am­biva­lence to­ward Aus­tria that I didn’t see quite as much from my grand­mother,” Mr. Schoen­berg said of Alt­mann, who was but 22 when she es­caped her home­land. “I re­mem­ber she said, ‘I could take it or leave it,’ whereas the older ones still felt re­ally tied to it.”

The por­trait of her aunt was an­other mat­ter.

“I was very struck by the way she talked with great pride,” Mr. Curtis said, “that ‘My aunt hangs in the bal­ance.’”

Mr. Schoen­berg took on her case, which put a strain on his law prac­tice and on his fam­ily’s fi­nances. The odds were stacked against them: Even if Alt­mann had a legal right to the paint­ing, the Aus­tri­ans would be any­thing but ea­ger to part with what they viewed as a piece of their cul­tural her­itage, whether or not a Nazi had stolen it.

The un­likely duo of client and at­tor­ney would em­bark on a years­long quest that took them across the At­lantic sev­eral times and even to the Supreme Court. He said that at sev­eral points dur­ing their un­cer­tain quest, Mr. Schoen­berg would of­ten ask him­self: “Is this go­ing to be ‘Erin Brock­ovich’ or is it go­ing to be ‘A Sim­ple Ac­tion’?”

“Peo­ple ask, ‘Is it ac­cu­rate; is it not ac­cu­rate?’” Mr. Schoen­berg said of the film’s artis­tic li­censes. “At its core, ev­ery­thing is ac­cu­rate, [but] you re­al­ize that even if we made a movie of our con­ver­sa­tion right now, there’d be a dif­fer­ent set and there’d be dif­fer­ent words, and it wouldn’t be ex­actly the same, so ev­ery­thing is changed in a way, but it’s all at core” close to what ac­tu­ally oc­curred, he said.

Mr. Schoen­berg points to a par­tic­u­lar scene in “Woman in Gold” that cap­tures the spirit, if not the let­ter, of truth. His avatar, played by Mr. Reynolds, vis­its the Holo­caust me­mo­rial at Tre­blinka, Poland, and breaks down, which Mr. Schoen­berg said did oc­cur, al­beit not at the time por­trayed in the film.

“That came from a story that I told Simon and the writer that I was there when they un­veiled the mon­u­ment,” he said, “and I started think­ing of my great­grand­fa­ther [who per­ished in the Holo­caust] and cried. So even though that scene [in the film] is ‘not ac­cu­rate,’ it is a true story.”

Mr. Schoen­berg con­tin­ues his quest to re­unite art­works stolen by the Nazis with the descen­dants of their right­ful own­ers. Even seven decades later, there re­main hun­dreds of thou­sands of such mis­ap­pro­pri­ated works, in­clud­ing one he has been fight­ing for nine years to lib­er­ate from the Nor­ton Simon Mu­seum in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia.

“They’ll show up even­tu­ally,” he said of such pieces. “Peo­ple die and some­one in­her­its them, and they bring them to Christie’s, and then ‘ Boom!’ the bells go off. But where they are now, no one knows.”

Mr. Curtis and Mr. Schoen­berg worry about a resur­gent tide of anti-Semitism sweep­ing across Europe, epit­o­mized in Jan­uary by the killings at satir­i­cal news­pa­per Char­lie Hebdo and at a nearby kosher deli in Paris.

“This film has landed at a time when peo­ple need re­mind­ing of the per­ils of anti-Semitism,” said Mr. Curtis, a na­tive of Eng­land. “French Jewish fam­i­lies are leav­ing the coun­try. It’s a ter­ri­ble time. And you just wish this cen­tury would pay more at­ten­tion to the lessons of the last cen­tury.

“It is good to have that re­minder ev­ery gen­er­a­tion,” Mr. Schoen­berg said. “Ev­ery new group of peo­ple need to learn the story.

“I think we’re for­tu­nate that Amer­ica has a cul­ture of open­ness,” he said. “We also have a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that al­lows us to in­te­grate dif­fer­ent view­points — the sort of the ge­nius of the Found­ing Fa­thers. I would say from the per­spec­tive of peo­ple who did es­cape, I’ve al­ways grown up be­ing very pro-im­mi­gra­tion as a re­sult.”

“I think it’s a love let­ter to Amer­ica’s pol­icy of im­mi­gra­tion,” Mr. Curtis said of his film. “One refugee from Vi­enna, who lived most of her life in Cal­i­for­nia, teams up with the grand­son of an­other refugee, and they go all the way to the Supreme Court, and that helps pro­pel the case back to Aus­tria. That’s an­other timely re­minder [of] the glory of im­mi­gra­tion, ac­tu­ally.”

The film raises im­por­tant is­sues in ex­am­in­ing the atroc­i­ties of the past and their ef­fects on the present, said Mr. Schoen­berg, who is pres­i­dent of the Los An­ge­les Mu­seum of the Holo­caust.

He shared a laugh about the one time he met Mr. Reynolds on the set of “Woman in Gold.”

He drove to the Bev­erly Hills lo­ca­tion in his typ­i­cal khakis and dress shirt and ar­rived on set to see Mr. Reynolds in iden­ti­cal at­tire.

“He walked over, points to me and points to him­self, and he’s dressed ex­actly the same,” Mr. Schoen­berg said. “So he says, ‘[I] nailed it.’”

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