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December 11, 2014

ArtsFilm + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


The Great Museum is an intriguing, witty and humorous documentary by Johannes Holzhausen, glancing behind the scenes of the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna, which is a world-famous cultural institution. The viewer is given insight into the daily routine, as the staff and director are preparing for the re-opening reception.

The film not only pays homage to the historic museum, and art pieces, but moreover to the people whose work and passion keep the museum afloat and relevant. While we get a glimpse of the behind the scenes and mini dramas that lead up to the main event, there is a continuous anticipation and some profound issues are brought to the surface, such as reconciling the conservation of the objects with an up to date presentation, and what part art plays in the representation of national identity in politics and tourism.

Johannes Holzhausen was intrigued to find out to what extent the Republic draws on the past and how the museum serves it in making these historical references. “Another fascinating issue that relates to the Kunsthistorische Museum, which I also wrote into the script, was the Austrian republic’s imperial heritage. The museum is like a cargo ship transporting the representative legacy of the imperial family into the present day.” Holzhausen shows this in a scene which evolves around renaming the Treasury “Imperial Treasury” because that’s what the tourism sector demands. Although it is a mere marketing strategy, there are some members of the staff who are not fully convinced with the decision.

Despite the busy work that is taking place all around, the pace of the film shot in the style of direct cinema, remains slow and calm, a lot like how an actual visit to the museum would be, therefore creating a perfect setting for the art objects. Although the camera serves as an observer, it never feels voyeuristic or intrusive, even in moments where staff members were caught in the middle of discussing financial budgets or patiently searching paintings for bugs.

“My background in art history really helped me as it meant I was on the same wavelength as the people at the museum right from the start… I speak their language and, above all, share their enthusiasm for the objects. I really admire their commitment.”

This admiration is transparent throughout the film. There is a great sense of respect for the art, the staff, and even for the viewer in that there are no interviews, off screen commentary, or music to manipulate the experience – we are expected to rely on our own perception and judgement. Johannes Holzhausen has done a great job establishing that sense of trust with the staff members and with us.

The meticulous camera work by Joerg Burger and Attila Boa as well as the poignant editing by Dieter Pichler compose an atmosphere of patient observation and reflection. There are a few interesting shots that really stand out such as the mise-en-scenes and long shots, for example when following an employee on a scooter through a narrow hallway and several rooms – not to mention, the opening crane shot that conveys the enormous size of the museum, and really captures its greatness.

“I wanted the audience to feel that: all the various concerns that are part of the day-to-day routine are nothing compared to the power of the art works themselves.”


Towards the end of the film we see several series of objects. For example the camera pans across a row of boxes containing personal files and a line of portraits and sculptures of aristocrats. Finally there are shots panning across several of the museum’s paintings, until the very final shot where the camera moves across a painting by Pieter Brueghel “The Tower of Babel”.

“In my opinion, this painting isn’t primarily about the hubris as an institution: a living organism that is continually changing and rebuilding itself from inside.”

I thought this famous painting was a very good way to end the movie, because it best conveys the director’s message of art in relation to transience, which seems the core theme of this documentary. The museum’s everyday business is related to a long tradition which dates back to the Habsburg monarchy, and of course to the timelessness of art objects in and of themselves.

The role of museum’s director Sabina Haag and her staff members is to preserve the art not only for our generation, but for next generations to come. All this makes this documentary more than just a portrait of a cultural institution – it is a film about the timelessness of art objects and the hard work and dedication that goes into maintaining their presence and appeal.

The Great Museum is out in UK cinemas on December 12th

Limor Gottlieb