HUMANITAS Winner Ronald Harwood to Write Play Inspired by Cornelius Gurlitt
German police struck gold when they visited Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich last year and discovered that he had hidden away 1,500 art works – including pieces by Renoir, Rodin, Courbet and Canaletto, mostly spoils of war. The collection, which was valued at £1 billion, might loosely be described as his inheritance from his father Hildebrand, who had collected them for Adolf Hitler’s planned Führermuseum.
Now, Mandrake hears that Sir Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, believes that he will strike gold, too, by turning the extraordinary story into a stage play. Sir Ronald is notoriously secretive about future projects, but the story of Gurlitt père et fils, which touches on the complicated relationship that the Nazis had with culture, fascinates him. “I will only say that Gurlitt’s story is central to the themes that have long obsessed me,” Sir Ronald tells me from Switzerland. The writer is perhaps best known for the film The Pianist but his plays Taking Sides (later also made into a film) focused on the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s relationship with Hitler, and Collaboration was about the impact that the Second World War had upon the composer Richard Strauss’s partnership with the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig.
Hildebrand Gurlitt’s Jewish family links were overlooked as a result of his art expertise. At the end of the war he was captured by the US army, but managed to convince his captors that his art collection had been largely destroyed during the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Instead of being regarded as an agent of the regime, he was deemed a victim of Nazi persecution and subsequently released.
His son Cornelius, a strange and reclusive character, died in May this year, aged 81. Alongside the Old Masters and pieces from the 19th century that was discovered in his apartment were many works by artists considered by the Nazi regime to be of no value because they were “degenerate” — such as Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. Sir Ronald is understood to have the working title “Degenerate Art.”