Its simultaneous arrival with Frederick Wiseman's look at London's National Gallery shouldn't distract us from the many delights and qualities of Austrian director Johannes Holzhausen's look at Vienna's Kunsthistorischesmuseum (already a setting for Jem Cohen's much lauded Museum Hours). Certainly, it's a marginally more polished work than Mr. Wiseman's, keeping in line with the formal stylization tradition of Austrian filmmaking, and its brief, compact structure may suggest more of a time-sensitive guided tour than a more leisurely visit.
But, as it follows the process that sees part of the museum's premises literally torn apart and rebuilt, The Great Museum proposes in effect an attentive exploration of the demands made on contemporary museums. The balance between art and commerce, spectacle and culture, is at the heart of the access-all-areas approach (not that different, to be honest, from many other site-specific documentaries): like the careful restoration of an exquisitely detailed mechanical model battleship that will eventually be exhibited behind a glass box. In shifting effortlessly between guest services and board meetings, restorers' work and questions of diplomatic protocol, marketers presenting new ideas for brand identity and curators without the budget to bid for pieces the collections sorely need, Mr. Holzhausen creates a tale of the museum as a microcosm, a mirror of the world at large.
Like a small nation attempting to steer a ship for the common good, somewhere between the concept of art as something to be enjoyed by all in pristine conditions and the need to make it relevant to a world where the majesty of this building seems a reminder of earlier times, the Kunsthistorisches stands at a vital crossroads in today's socio-cultural landscape. Mr. Holzhausen's film perfectly encapsulates and lays out that crossroads, while showing why its existence is not only necessary but mandatory - less of a contemplative work than an explanatory one, but a ravishingly-made one.
DAS GROSSE MUSEUM
Director Johannes Holzhausen; screenwriters Mr. Holzhausen and Constantin Wulff; cinematographers Joerg Burger and Attila Boa (colour); editor Dieter Pichler; producer Johannes Rosenberger; production company Navigator Film
Screened May 13th 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)
THE GREAT MUSEUM - English Trailer from NAVIGATOR Film on Vimeo.