'The Great Museum': Film Review

The Great Museum film still - H 2014
The Great Museum

The Great Museum film still - H 2014

A beauty of a documentary about a stellar repository of artistic riches.

Filmmaker Johannes Holzhausen's documentary centers on Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum.

In every sense, The Great Museum (Das grosse Museum) imparts a feeling of privilege — privilege on the part of those (the Hapsburgs) who built and opened Vienna's extraordinary Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1891, privilege among those lucky enough to work at such a rarified establishment and privilege on the part of any viewer of Johannes Holzhausen's wonderfully evocative and droll documentary, which goes behind-the-scenes to show what it takes to manage and maintain such a culturally weighty institution. In the wake of festival showings at Berlin, Austria's Diagonale, Los Angeles, Sydney, Istanbul and elsewhere, Kino Lorber will release this lovely jewel domestically in the fall.

Shot between 2012 and 2013 during the renovation and reinstallation of the museum's Kunstkammer galleries, Das grosse Museum is as elegant as its subject, beautifully capturing the magnificent rooms that house paintings, sculpture, jewels, armor, clothing and all manner of historical artifacts while also seeming to always be in just the right place, even down to the camera angle and lighting, to capture a small but telling moment.

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It's not surprising to learn that Holzhausen trained as an art historian, as, without being at all stuffy about it and eschewing narration as well as music, every second of the film imparts a feeling of great respect, not only for the museum's invaluable contents but for the eclectic bunch of people who work there.

What's incumbent upon the staff is keeping the museum relevant and appealing to a large and international public. Even for a famous institution with fabulous holdings, it's no longer enough just to line the galleries with a lot of old stuff and open the doors. International competition is intense, as are rivalries between assorted national institutions for public funding, and new technologies on multiple fronts demand keeping up with them, as anyplace that just treads water will fall behind.

One wonderfully sustained shot, remindful of The Shining, that definitively situates the film and the Kunsthistorisches in the 21st century follows a young employee as he briskly threads a path through several rooms on a clerical errand aboard a razor scooter. Most of the staffers, from the genial general director, Sabina Haag, to a gentleman who's retiring from the armor department and a worker who is hoisted by an elaborate mechanical lift to a high ceiling just to see how many moths a trap has caught, have an edge of the eccentric and obsessive to them, but that's probably part of the job description for those who devote hours of each day to minutia of the past.

In one scene, an elderly man brings in for donation his father's immaculate dress uniform from the days of the Emperor Franz to the appreciative murmurs of the staff. Expressing a fatigue and dislike of the old monarchy, one historian bemoans how "The Hapsburgs weigh me down like a millstone," only to be reminded by another that Japanese tourists "love the Hapsburgs" and that the old Austrian guard is great for marketing.

For Haag in particular, an ease with diplomacy is essential; on more than one occasion, she must guide top government officials, including the president, through the buildings. But the specifics and peculiarities of museum presentation and maintenance remain the most fascinating subjects for the camera — an analysis of a Reubens sketch that appears to have been elaborated and painted over by someone else years later, a search for potentially destructive beetles on the surface of paintings, the dusting of the inner thigh of a statue, the re-hanging of a renovated gallery of Italian art. The film makes these, and innumerable other details, come alive by virtue of the care with which the workers do their jobs and the parallel skills of the filmmaker when it comes to selection and presentation.

The arrival of this film at the same time as Frederick Wiseman's exhaustive National Gallery documentary makes for a banner year for films about major institutions devoted to art.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (International Showcase)

Production: Navigator Film (Kino Lorber — U.S. distribution)

Director: Johannes Holzhausen

Writers: Johannes Holzhausen, Constantin Wulff

Producer: Johannes Rosenberger

Directors of photography: Joerg Burger, Attila Boa

Editor: Dieter Pichler

95 minutes