Documentary films generally come in two iterations: those that offer history lessons and those that offer lessons from history. Portrait of Wally is very much the latter.
Austin filmmaker Andrew Shea, who moonlights as an associate professor in the University of Texas Radio-Television-Film Department, delivers a model for linear filmmaking and in the process does what good documentaries should do — it leaves you asking as many questions of yourself as it answers about the subject.
Portrait of Wally is the story of a 100-year-old painting by Austrian artist Egon Schiele. Wally is Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil, Schiele's lover at the time. On the same day in 1912, Schiele painted two portraits — one of Wally, and one of himself.
The portrait of Wally was purchased by a Jewish art dealer, Lea Bondi a few years later and was stolen by a Nazi art collector during the German occupation of Austria in the 1940s. After the war, the painting, now worth tens of millions of dollars, resurfaced at the Austrian National Galley and eventually at the Leopold Museum.
"What attracted me to the story was how much emotion and outrage the story triggered in people. It was a story people felt so passionately about."
In the late 1960s, Wally appeared in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, on loan from the Leopold Museum. Bondi's family, now living in America, got the Manhattan district attorney's attention, which got U.S. Homeland Security's attention, and brought the conversation about Nazi war crimes, Nazi looting and war-time restitution to the forefront.
The story stands as an example of international crime, greed and moral indignation even 60 years after the end of WWII. "I always envisioned it as a legal thriller," explains filmmaker, Shea. "What attracted me to the story was how much emotion and outrage the story triggered in people. It was a story people felt so passionately about."
Using the painting as the thread, Shea's film takes us from the sexually liberated pre-war years in Vienna; through "Anschluss," Nazi occupation and looting on a historic scale; followed by the holocaust and then into what might be described best as the invisible, complicated, competitive underworld of international art collecting, dealing and exhibiting. If that all sounds complicated, Shea manages to cut through it brilliantly.
"Underlying these big international disputes involving these huge cultural institutions is a simple human drama," he says. "It's about a woman who wanted her painting back. And her family took up that battle after she died."
The film is extraordinarily well researched. "You had to see how much paper there was," says Barbara Morgan, a producer on the film. "And it looked like if that was going to be the movie, it would be so boring. And Andrew found the story."
Portrait of Wally premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now playing in 12 cities around the country and will soon be screened in Vienna. On Friday the film finally made it to Austin screens at the Violet Crown Cinema. Barbara Morgan, also the executive director of the Austin Film Festival, says the movie highlights how important the University of Texas is to local filmmaking.
"UT is a huge asset to the film community here and sometimes one that gets forgotten," explains Morgan. "They attract a lot of talented people who come and then stay here. In the last eight to 10 years the quality of the filmmaking coming out of the University has been tremendous and is drawing attention to the city."
"We couldn't have made the film without the help of UT," adds Shea.
Portrait of Wally plays through September 13 at the Violet Crown.