The New Rijksmuseum (Het Nieuwe Rijksmuseum)

Pieter van Huijstee/Column Film
Behind-the-scenes doc is valuable and engrossing but not for the easily frustrated

Oeke Hoogendijk watches a ten-year, $500 million renovation of Amsterdam's historic museum.

NEW YORK — A grueling film that would make useful viewing for anyone contemplating change at a major institution and all those inclined to carp from the sidelines when such changes take longer than expected, Oeke Hoogendijk's The New Rijksmuseum is an epic, four-hour account of renovations to Amsterdam's famous art museum. The two-part film is far too tortured for a general audience, but art lovers will find it edifying; moviegoers with a foot in the architecture or construction fields may find it worthwhile too, if only so they can rejoice that they're not the ones enduring this gig.

Hoogendijk begins filming not when the renovation is proposed (in the course of four hours, nobody fully explains why the enormously costly project was necessary) but when demolition of interior walls starts in 2005. Soon we're meeting the museum's general director Ronald de Leeuw and his Spanish architects, who are optimistic about their proposed design until the public gets a look at it. Cyclists (a powerful lobby in Amsterdam) are outraged at an entry scheme that would disturb one of their favorite transit routes; city planners lament that nobody at the museum consulted them earlier in the process.

After much hassle, viewers see the first of numerous occasions in which design specialists swallow their pride and accept alternatives that are "banal" or "mediocre." Given the number of parties interested in each debate, it often seems that negotiations skip the compromise phase entirely and leave a design's originator weeping out in the cold, ready to disown his or her work.

A seemingly ill-conceived bidding process results in bids that are sometimes twice what the museum anticipated; project managers come and go; midway through, de Leeuw jumps ship, cooing about how much he's looking forward to enjoying the pied-a-terre he's just bought in another European capital. By the time new director Wim Pijbes is hired, the music and editing have become so hectic we feel we're in the operating room observing the 20th hour of a pregnant woman's labor. Will the museum's cherished Vermeers and Rembrandts ever escape from storage?

The agony is tempered by occasional glimpses of gifted art professionals at work -- scenes in the restoration lab are particularly calming -- and by the introduction of two characters who clearly value the museum's mission far above any ego-driven concern: Leo van Gerven, a superintendent who monitors the building's health while others tear it up and rebuild; and Menno Fitski, the Asian art curator whose reverence for and joy in the art entrusted to his care is contagious.

Production Company: Column Film

Director: Oeke Hoogendijk

Producers: Pieter van Huystee (Part 1), Gus van de Westelaken (Part 2)

Directors of photography: Sander Snoep, Gregor Meerman, Adri Schrover, Paul Cohen

Music: Eelco van de Meeberg, Christiaan van Hemert

Editor: Gys Zevenbergen

No rating, 233 minutes