03. November 2016

Action films, documentary films, art films: SCHIRN MAGAZINE presents films set in the world of museums and galleries.

By Jens Balkenborg

Film is (to a greater or lesser extent) art, of that there is no question. In terms of content too, the medium of film is frequently intertwined with the fine arts. Alongside the numerous biopics about big artistic personalities, there are now many films that are set either entirely or partly in galleries and exhibition halls and thus (to a greater or lesser extent) incorporate art as a theme. We present a selection from recent film history.

RUSSIAN ARK

A complete work of art in the Hermitage

Over 2,000 actors and extras and the classical music of three live orchestras, all filmed in 22 rooms in a single uncut, 90-minute shot? What sounds like a nigh-impossible superlative of form became a reality in “Russian Ark” (Russia/Germany, 2002) by Alexandr Sokurov. In one single, artificial gasp the Russian director’s mammoth project follows a nameless, unseen narrator accompanied by a French politician, the Marquis de Custine, through the Hermitage of the early 18th century. As a dispute breaks out between the two, they are met in the salons and corridors of the palace by real and fictional characters from the last 300 years of Russian history. (Brief side note: An even longer shot was captured by Sebastian Schippers in his 140-minute one-take trip “Victoria” (2015), which is set in the equally historic Open Air Gallery in Berlin.)

Russian Ark (Russland Deutschland 2002). © Celluloïd Dreams

ARTEHOLIC

An artistic figure takes us through Europe’s temples of art

Udo Kier is a living legend. The likable eccentric has filmed with Andy Warhol, Lars von Trier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Christoph Schlingensief and is Germany’s irrepressible beacon in Hollywood. He is also thoroughly obsessed with art. This is explained by Hermann Vaske’s documentary “Arteholic” (Germany, 2014), which follows Kier on a single-minded journey through Europe’s galleries and exhibition houses. At the Städel in Frankfurt, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the art-addict Kier chats to curators and artists. “Arteholic” is an ironic self-dramatization by the artistic figure that is Kier, and at the same time opens up a striking discourse about art.

Arteholic (Germany 2014). © Camino Filmverleih

DAS GROßE MUSEUM

A close look at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

With “Das große Museum” (Austria, 2014), documentary filmmaker and art historian Johannes Holzhausen grants us an intimate look behind the scenes of the renowned Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In modestly filmed shots the Austrian takes a look over the shoulders of the various protagonists of the institute, the restorers, the academics, the marketing department and others, and through this personal panopticon creates a diverse portrait of everyday life in the museum. Along the way Holzhausen also tells us about the economic pressure on the cultural institution in times of global competition. “The brand attributes of how we want to be: stylish, masterful, touching, open. It all sounds fine, but you could apply them to toothpaste,” says one protagonist, both joking and serious at the same time.

Das große Museum (Austria 2014).© Real Fiction

NATIONAL GALLERY

A look at the communication of art

Like his Austrian colleague, in “National Gallery” (France/USA/UK, 2014) Frederick Wiseman also focuses on the goings-on in an exhibition house, in this case the world-famous art gallery in London. In this, his 38th documentary film, the Frenchman features the institution’s employees, but focuses first and foremost on its visitors. Here adults and children stand before Vermeers, Picassos and other greats of the art world, marveling at them in awe or listening attentively to the explanations of the guides, whilst a group of art students practices painting techniques. It is primarily people’s reactions to art and the communication of it that is examined in the calm images of Wiseman’s gallery portrait.

National Gallery (France USA UK 2014). © Kool

MUSEUM HOURS

Docufiction in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

“Museum Hours” (Austria/USA, 2012) takes us back to Vienna, and after the two abovementioned works we gradually move away from documentary territory again, because although Jem Cohen’s film initially appears to be a documentary, bit by bit a fictional narration creeps in. In what are once again very careful and slow-moving images – something many museum films have in common and which is perhaps a result of the respect for and the hush that prevails within the exhibition houses – “Museum Hours” tells the story of museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), whose favorite thing is to spend hours alone immersing himself in the Bruegel paintings in the great hall. This is until he meets Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a kind of soulmate, with whom he continues to discuss art and life.

Museum Hours (Austria USA 2012). © Eurozoom

THE MILL AND THE CROSS

A whole film inside a painting

“But that’s not set in a museum!” those familiar with the film will now cry. “No matter,” is all the author of these lines can say to that, because whilst we’re on the subject of Bruegel, Lech Majewski’s film fits perfectly and likewise occupies a space that will touch the hearts of art historians. “The Mill and the Cross” (Sweden/Poland, 2011) is largely set within the painting “The Procession to Calvary” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and tells the story of the everyday lives of a dozen of the 500 people depicted in it. Majewski follows the explanations of art historian Michael Francis Gibson and in this film essay he incorporates the pictorial language of its template in order to offer a cinematic interpretation of the Renaissance masterpiece, and at the same time tells the story of its development.

The Mill and the Cross (Sweden Poland 2011). © Neue Visionen

THE INTERNATIONAL

Ten-minute showdown: Goodbye Guggenheim

It’s only for about ten minutes that Tom Tykwer’s action-packed political thriller “The International” (USA/Germany/UK, 2009) is set in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. What happens there could be described as a lavishly filmed kick in the rear of the cultured world and is probably one of the most memorable cinematic museum scenes of the last few years, hence it forms the showdown of our sequence: In New York’s Guggenheim Museum a killer commando hunts for the Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and in doing so tears apart the exhibition house. A veritable small-scale war breaks out in the breathless minutes between the floors of the distinctive rotunda structure, with screaming museum visitors, bloodied bodies and bullet-ridden video installations by the artist Julian Rosefeldt all included. Since the scenes couldn’t be filmed in the original Guggenheim, the crew simply filmed in a replica in Babelsberg, which took 16 weeks to build. Guggenheim Babelsberg, a Bilbao effect like no other for what is undoubtedly a museum scene like no other.

The International (USA Germany UK 2009). © Sony Pictures Releasing France