“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.’”