Film Review: ‘The Great Museum’


There’s something inherently cinematic and therefore mysterious about institutions, and with the release of Johannes Holzhausen’s The Great Museum (2014) we have Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery (2014) arriving on screens in January. It’s worth mentioning both films in the same breath as they act as both point and counterpoint to one another. After premiering to critical adoration at the Berlinale in February The Great Museum now is unveiled for British eyes, and what a gem it is. Focusing on the majestical central beating heart of Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum (literally translated as ‘Museum of Art History’), which sits astride the city like a cultural colossus opposite the Naturhistorisches Museum.

Both were opened by in 1891 by Franz Joseph I in order to find a grand home for the Habsburgs’ formidable art collection. Made just over a year in between 2012 and 2013 which encompassed the renovation and reinstallation of the museum’s Kunstkammer galleries, the film drips a disguised elegance that Holzhausen manages to bring to the fore in a manner suggestive of a magical mystery that supposes the fact that he was never actually there at all. He skirts through the KHM capturing the grand rooms that exist as the residences of paintings, sculpture, jewels, armor, clothing and a general menagerie of historical artifacts. It is no surprise to discover that Johannes Holzhausen originally trained as an art historian before heading off to film school at the veteran age of 27.

In his representation of the KHM he seems to be fascinated by people and the defined role of toiled obsession that is transfigured by the ideal and actuality of an occupation. Holzhausen transfixes the gaze by the conduit of Direct Cinema (a trait he shares with the modus operandi of Fred Wiseman), which means no voice over, titles or non-diegetic music. This approach as ever creates a payoff that surpasses the instant gratification of normalised Anglo-Saxon approach to documentaries shown at the cinema. In this manner he peers inward towards the working, living, breathing existence of an institution that enhances its characterisation the more that it’s observed. Unlike Wiseman’s National Gallery Holzhausen turns away from the the public and the relationship with the displayed art. For him interest lies with the worker bees of the restoration department, the curators and ultimately the head of the gallery: Sabine Haag. In this hyper focused manner he reimagines cinema and its historical imperative upon his film, and the idea of dedication to a higher power.

The moment that powerful conversation interacts with this idea is when he approaches the level of a coup de cinema! He follows a youthful KHM employee as he angles his way through endless rooms and corridors on a scooter, ultimately to pick up some printed documents. In this small intensely focuses scene we think of little Danny in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and how time passes within buildings of a historical nature and have to be bent towards modernity by the everyday. The Great Museum is a beautiful love letter to obsession and eccentricity, the love is given and received in equal measure. This, at its nature is what art should do, and what cinema strives for and rarely achieves, with this poetic discourse about the difficult question of what to do with the art of robber barons in relation towards a finality that befits such a collection.

D W Mault | @D_W_Mault