British documentary film director Jane Chablani tells the true story of Maria Altman┬┤s struggle against Austria to claim the 5 famous paintings of the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.
These paintings were the property of Maria Altmann┬┤s family until they were stolen by the Nazis in 1938. One of them is the world┬┤s most expensive painting: "Adele Bloch-Bauer I", that shows aunt of Maria Altmann.
Jane Chablani is the prize-winning director of documentary films. During the last twelve years she made a name for herself with numerous documentaries of various subjects for BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.
AVIVA-Berlin: Mrs Chablani, this is your first movie for cinema. You are BBC journalist and the director of various documentary films like "The Pharaoh┬┤s Revenge: Egypt┬┤s Lost Treasure" and "Pyramid". How did you get in touch with the issue "Beutekunst"?
Jane Chablani: Well, actually a friend of mine who financed the film (Tim Schwarz) was very passionate about the subject, because his own family is Jewish and they had to flee Austria also during the "Anschluss".
And when he started investigating his family┬┤s past, he found out that they were quite ÔÇô not in the same way like Maria Altmann┬┤s family - but that they had property that was stolen.
He is a lawyer in London and started to investigate Nazi loot (Beutekunst). By doing that he became a close friend of Randol Sch├Ânberg, Maria Altmann┬┤s lawyer (and a grandson of the composer Arnold Sch├Ânberg).
He heard of the story and thought it would make a brilliant film. And then I entered that meeting. You┬┤re instantly captivated by him when you meet Randol Sch├Ânberg, because he is such a small man and fought against Austria. And I met him during the time of the court case. So the story was phenomenal and so we started to make the movie.
AVIVA-Berlin: Did the subject interest you in general or was it the specific story of Mrs Altmann and the Bloch-Bauer Family?
Jane Chablani: It was specifically Maria Altmann┬┤s story and I thought it was such a good story, and it was so shocking. I was interested in that old lady and really impressed, that she didn┬┤t actually want the paintings to be returned. All she wanted was them to acknowledge the elements of the crime, because in the museum they didn┬┤t say "property of", they were keeping a lie up. What she wanted was just an acknowledgement. And it turned ugly, because they then applied during the trial to their restitution law. And there was no given reason why they wouldn┬┤t be given back. But then the court rejected the request.
AVIVA-Berlin: How did the idea emerge to develop a movie?
Jane Chablani: I think it was always a bit of both. It was kind of thought to be for TV, but then we also thought, because it┬┤s such a bigger story, it could be a movie for cinema. And of course Maria Altmann is such an amazing character, a beautiful woman.
AVIVA-Berlin:At what point did you start to follow the fight for restitution of the Klimts?
Jane Chablani: We started to follow the story in 2004, when the case came to the Supreme Court and it ended exactly two years later when they get the paintings back. So we filmed from February 2004 to January 2006. The real end was when she was selling the paintings in June 2006.
AVIVA-Berlin: How did the cooperation with Mrs Altmann come about?
Jane Chablani: Because of Randy Sch├Ânberg, her lawyer. So the contact was made and obviously she was an open door for us. And she is a very nice woman, very open, very kind and she liked the idea of making a film.
AVIVA-Berlin: So you followed the court case before it was possible to tell how it might end. How was Maria Altmann┬┤s and Randy Sch├Ânberg┬┤s mood during that period, were they optimistic about winning the trial against the Republic of Austria during the entire process? Has there ever occurred a situation in which Mrs. Altmann was about to give up?
Jane Chablani: Oh no, they thought in fact, that they wouldn┬┤t win it. I think they gave Randy Sch├Ânberg only a 15 percent chance to win, maybe less. His first victory before the Supreme Court was absolutely unexpected and nobody knew how the story would end. It was never a sure case.
So definitely Maria Altmann had her ups and downs in that 7-years-period. But she is a positive person, so I think she never thought about giving up, because she did believe that it would work out.
AVIVA-Berlin: The former Austrian secretary of cultural and education Elisabeth Gehrer was acting in a very questionable manner regarding the return of the paintings. For example, she first denied the theft by the Nazis and even pulled out all stops on the personal level by trying to manipulate Mrs. Altmann.
Have you ever been in a face-to-face conversation with Mrs. Gehrer?
Did she give a statement, explaining why she denied an interview for the movie?
Jane Chablani: We never were able to make contact personally with her, just through the office. Every time we got this: "Oh, not this month, try next month". So it was never a "no", but it was much more clever, because then it could be said, that it would happen for example in three years. As a filmmaker you have a certain matter of time and someday the money runs out.
The same thing happened with Mr Frodl, the director of the Austrian Gallery Belvedere.
AVIVA-Berlin: How difficult was it to secure interviews from representatives of the opposition side in Austria in general?
Jane Chablani: Finally they offered up Doctor Gottfried Toman, he was their representative. I think it shows a bit of arrogance, I mean they were giving
Mr Toman, but nobody else. In fact we were never able to meet somebody from the original restitution committee, the society that didn┬┤t want to give the paintings back. Mrs Gehrer wasn┬┤t willing to speak in publicly to us, because she was scared of losing her job, even though she didn┬┤t agree with her decision back in 1999. This shows a level of fear, of paranoia.
AVIVA-Berlin: After winning the trial, did Mrs. Altmann expect Austria to buy the paintings? Would she prefer to obtain the "Adele" in Austria?
Jane Chablani: Mrs. Altmann would have happily had Austria to keep the paintings. They had the first right of refusal, but they wouldn┬┤t and said that they couldn┬┤t afford this. And there was an objective, a proposal of money but the way they behavedÔÇŽThey were asked but Austria let them go. She would have loved them to go to the public, to a museum.
AVIVA-Berlin: Was she disappointed, that this wasn┬┤t the case and that in the end all paintings, with the exception of the "Adele", where bought by private owners, out of reach for public viewings?
Jane Chablani: But like she said in the movie, she is not the only heir - there were 4 or 5 co-heirs and the costs of litigation made the situation very difficult. Moreover she had to pay a lawyer. Randy Sch├Ânberg had spent 7 years working for nothing.
AVIVA-Berlin:How did she deal with the shabby press?
Jane Chablani: That┬┤s right: When she first came she felt that there was almost an anti-Semitic feeling, like: "She is an American, she must be rich, so why does she want our paintings?".
AVIVA-Berlin: Did her relation to Austria change during the trials?
Jane Chablani: I think her relationship changed the minute they where forced to flee Austria in 1938, I think when they left during the "Anschluss". There she had to move on, make her life somewhere else. I think probably she didn┬┤t expect very much given what have happened during the war. As she says in the film, the Austrians were cheering, they weren┬┤t victims of the Nazis. I think she had seen the way they behaved all the years before, when she tried to get her heritage back.
AVIVA-Berlin: What has changed for you emotionally during the movie production?
Jane Chablani: I was really impressed by her courage to face a country on her own. Of course she had a very good lawyer, but I think it takes a lot of moral courage to not be afraid of a country. To keep going, even when the United States were also against her, because of political reasons. I think her stand for what she believed with that result ÔÇô I think that was really inspiring. She is an inspiring woman.
AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you for the interview!
Read also the AVIVA-film-review of "Stealing Klimt"!