The Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna gets the direct cinema treatment in The Great Museum, a behind the scenes look at the day-to-day operations of one of the most beautiful art museums in the world. Eschewing most of the usual trappings of a documentary, filmmaker Johannes Holzhausen stripped away the gilded veneer of this Viennese museum to show how the sausage is made, as it were. Whether this approach succeeds is ultimately, like the very art captured by the film, a matter of taste.
The film begins as the Kunsthistoriches Museum is undergoing a refurbishment. The camera glides through the opulent galleries, empty save for the cleaning staff, who are removing every last speck of dirt while in adjacent rooms, workers tear off plaster and dig up floors readying the rooms for a total redesign. Then we see the directors of the museum, planning the new advertising and logos, attempting to buy new artworks and organizing events or photo opportunities with government ministers upon whose subsidies the museum depends. Every aspect of what it takes to establish and run a major museum is given a brief spotlight, collecting a series of small episodes within the context of this major project.
These day-to-day activities are captured using the approach of direct cinema, an interesting documentary genre made famous by the likes of Robert Drew and the Maysles Brothers. It forgoes the usual trappings one would expect from documentary such as voice over narration, interviews and re-enactments, with the express desire to achieve objective truth. By presenting things as they happen without any framing or bias allows the events to just be without interference. Whereas Drew focused on the behind closed doors world of American politics with Primary and the Maysles Brothers essayed The Rolling Stones’ notorious Altamont concert in Gimme Shelter, The Great Museum is interested in spaces and those who inhabit them.
The film renders the Kunsthistoriches Museum as a surrealist castle where the old world opulence of the surroundings makes way for the modern occurrences of the 21st century. Holzhausen successfully lifts the veil to show the hard work that goes into maintaining a museum with his own artistic eye as his Steadicam glides effortlessly through ornate halls and gilded galleries to find a cleaning woman tucked into the legs of a naked male statue while vacuuming its crotch, or a construction worker walking casually into a baroque ballroom and proceeding to smash through the floor with a pick axe. These surreal images are beautifully captured and serve to provide moments of reflection as the audience is confronted with recognizable images presented in new and intriguing ways. The images also work in contrast to the numerous episodes of very slight drama that permeate the film as employees deliberate on many different facets of the museum’s re-launch.
Many members of staff from various departments are captured by the roaming camera as they prepare for the museum’s upcoming opening ceremony; the Managing Director glad hands officials and government ministers to secure support and funding, a restoration expert is troubled by the fact that a work by Rubens appears to have been painted over by an anonymous amateur and the publicity staff are worried that a font they have used in a brochure might be “too aggressive.”
These small episodes are very light but enjoyable interactions that focus on the amount of work that goes into running a museum of this size and calibre. However, while these slices of life are entertaining, they are the weakest element of the film, as with all direct cinema documentaries the filmmakers rely on the drama inherent in their subject matter to provide the narrative momentum for the film. This is something The Great Museum somewhat lacks.
In one scene, two art buyers are looking to buy some new items for the museum. They have to stay within a limited budget and are under orders not to exceed this amount. The tension begins to mount as they are outbid at every turn, bemoaning the fact that all these items are being sold way above their value. They reach the final item and know they must win this bid or they go home empty handed. The suspense is palpable as they bid once, twice then three times until finally…they are outbid once again. It is an anti-climactic scene and is rather indicative of the rest of the film; potential dramatic moments deflate almost immediately and waive excitement for novelty. Then again, that’s what happens in real life and what direct cinema is all about, those tiny moments of insight from a world hitherto unseen. So this is more a quibble than an outright flaw on the filmmaker’s part.
Enjoyment of The Great Museum is wholly dependent on an appreciation for direct cinema or an acceptance of non-narrative driven film. The images are the real strength here, with Holzhausen’s background in art history suiting the subject matter perfectly. There really are some incredibly well framed shots and intricate moves that show the director’s familiarity with the camera and an ability to provoke an emotion or a thought through interesting framing or a smooth dolly shot. There is something intrinsically fascinating about being invited behind the scenes of a particular world to see what makes it tick, to see the lives of people whom were previously unknown yet whose work can be witnessed in all its lavish glory.
The Great Museum is a gorgeously photographed and fascinating look behind the scenes of a world class museum.