Lawyers know the case as Republic of Austria v. Altmann, which revolves around a very dry and technical issue, namely whether the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) applies retroactively. In a 6-3 decision in 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the FSIA does apply retroactively.
The context was a lawsuit by Maria Altmann, whose beautiful aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, is the woman in gold pictured in this artwork by Gustav Klimt. Nazis stole the picture from Altmann’s family during World War II; after the war it hung in an Austrian art gallery until Altmann sued for its return. The Court’s interpretation of the FSIA determined that Austria did not enjoy immunity from lawsuit for the painting’s return.
Woman in Gold brings this legal story to life, with a luminous portrayal of Maria Altmann by actress Helen Mirren. This is a pure underdog story, with Altmann and her young and inexperienced lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds) taking on powerful opponents and the status quo. Even the United States government supported Austria as amicus curiae so that its foreign relations with other nations would not be disrupted.
For Court fans, the movie depicts Schoenberg’s meticulous preparation for his first Supreme Court appearance and his struggle with the oral argument.
Watch the movie and see how he does. It will put you in the mood for the Court’s new Term, which starts next week.