The Great Museum


The great museum mentioned in the title of this film is Vienna’s renowned Kunsthistorisches museum, which features several world-class masterpieces by Finish, German and international masters such as Johannes Vermeer, Pieter Bruegel (his Tower of Babel is seen prominently here and used as a metaphor for the complex museum) as well as gold artifacts, armors, musical instruments and more.

Growing up in France and having traveled quite intensively, I have visited quite a few museums, but I hadn’t realized how much work goes behind-the-scenes and this is exactly what this documentary by Johannes Holzhausen shows us.

The filmmaker was given full “backstage” access to the museum and is making us visit several departments, from management to security, archives, janitors, restoration and more. We get to assist to meetings, a retirement party, restorations of various works and pieces, biddings, presidential visits, openings, remodeling of rooms and what’s striking is how much detail goes into planning and implementing everything.  While, as we can expect, restoring a piece is a very meticulous work, a high degree of precision seems to be a common denominator here, from cleaning a painting to handling a crown and finding the right font for a logo.

Another and more unexpected element is the humor omnipresent in this documentary and we get to laugh a few times, whether it’s when a guard put her hand to check if an alarm is working or when following an employee using a scooter to get to the printer – a scene somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s emblematic sequence following a boy on his tricycle in The Shining.

Of course, running such an important museum partly founded by the government is no easy affair and requires solid leadership and this is exactly what’s happening here. The duo in charge of the Kunsthistorisches knows exactly what they want and are seen at times ruthless in their quest for perfection.

Because of this tight control and because this museum focuses on classic movements, what we don’t get to however see are struggles. One can for example imagine how contemporary art can bring more arguments when it comes to assessing the value of some new artists. Financing – and spending – can be another issue and these two examples could take a documentary about a different museum in a whole new direction – if you live in Los Angeles and follow art news, just imagine how a documentary about MOCA could have turned into a House of Cards-style piece.

Getting back to our film, what makes The Great Museum so successful is not only its subject but the fact that that the filmmaker was able to embrace the beauty of both the art and employees’ work.  Bringing some poetry while avoiding being pretentious or pedant, Mr. Holzhausen has created a unique, captivating work that will satisfy both art lovers and neophytes alike.

Director: Johannes Holzhausen – Running Time: 1:35 – Year: 2014 – Country: Austria

Click the link below to watch the trailer:

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.