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The Great Museum is a documentary where long stretches of nothing much happens - in this case, that's not such a bad thing. Full of meticulously composed, quietly observant takes, the 2014 film offers an insider's view of the inner workings of a world-class art museum - Vienna, Austria's Kunsthistorisches. It's an elegantly made film that's both revealing and respectful of its subject, befitting a place that holds the crown jewels of Europe, canonical paintings from the Renaissance up through the 19th century, and antiquities from ancient Rome and Egypt.
The Great Museum offers a side of the art museum world that visitors rarely, if ever, see - in fact, visitors are only seen briefly near the film's conclusion, streaming into a newly refurbished area of the museum. Director Johannes Holzhausen filmed this at a time when the Kunsthistorisches Museum was closed to visitors for an extended structural and technical renovation, shuttered since 2002 for a complete overhaul. In addition to making over the galleries to match the splendor of when they originally opened in 1891, staffers needed to catalogue and restore each of the museum's 2,200 pieces. In the meantime, the museum does its usual function of budgeting, marketing, planning shows, courting those who donate to the collection and visiting dignitaries - Holzhausen meticulously captures all of that.
With a straightforward, observant style that does away with interviews, narration, montages and the other usual tricks, The Great Museum shares the same fly-on-the-wall approach as another recent documentary, Ballet 422. While that film followed the planning process on a ballet piece by shadowing one person, The Great Museum takes on a wider scope, following a large group of employees. While it lacks some of Ballet 422's casual intimacy, the apparent ease that the museum staffers had with Holzhausen and his crew allows for some great insights. The director mostly keeps his camera still and observant, resulting in a film which may appear icy. He refrains from identifying the employees until the final credits reel, resulting in what looks like a completely self-contained, insular world of worker bees (the one incongruous scene comes with an auction attended by two Kunsthistorisches Museum buyers - the only part not shot on the museum grounds).
The Great Museum is at its best when Holzhausen's cameras get in close on the conservation process, showing something like the process of inspecting an old painting for bug holes with a fascinating amount of detail. With this movie, mostly what stays in the memory are the amusingly odd contrasts - a burly workman smashing apart the floor in an immaculate room with a pick-axe, workers gingerly transporting a mangy-looking polar bear-skin rug as if it were a precious gem, another employee gliding through several cluttered back offices on his own scooter. While a lot of the film conveys the business-as-usual activities of any big organization (budget meetings, etc.), in the end the documentary makes the Kunsthistorisches Museum appear like a strange, wondrous place to work.
The image on Kino Lorber's DVD edition of The Great Museum is professionally done in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is a good showcase for the solid colors and ultra-clean resolution of digitally-generated photography. Colors and textures are nice and lifelike, while the light balance has a good evenness with no instances of murk or blasted-out white levels. While a meticulously filmed, visually-appealing movie like this practically cries out for a high-resolution Blu Ray, the image on this DVD satisfies.
The Great Museum's soundtrack is mostly ambient sound effects, with dialogue (mostly in German) and music kept to a minimum. The track is given a good, atmospheric treatment on the DVD's audio, available in either 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo. It's a solid, pristine-sounding mix that complements the clean visuals nicely. The English subtitles on the disc are optional.
The disc includes several Deleted Scenes. Totaling about 20 minutes in length, the scenes expand on some sequences already in the film along with a few new bits (my favorite is the guy taking a long, long trek to the museum's magnificent domed roof to replace a faulty light). There's also an Interview with the Director, spoken in German with English subtitles. In the 18-minute piece, Johannes Holzhausen holds forth on the efforts to convince the museum officials to make his film, the timing of his shooting schedule, the decision to not have the general public seen in the movie, and other topics. A Theatrical Trailer rounds out the extras.
The Great Museum offers a passive yet revealing look at the inner workings of the prestigious Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. This beautifully photographed film is done with a clinical, observant eye, showing the museum's employees in their day-to-day activities. For a project that potentially looks as appealing as a glass of warm milk, the filmmakers' total objectivity leads to an enjoyable, refreshing watch for doc fans. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.