Clocking in at four hours, Oeke Hoogendijk’s “The New Rijksmuseum” may sound like the ultimate treat for culture hounds, who have been deprived access to the Amsterdam fixture’s robust collection for the duration of its decade-long renovation. However, the process-oriented docu is actually better suited to an even more rarefied breed — namely, those bemused by bureaucracy and fascinated by the vise it holds on fine art. With its emphasis on ugly inner workings over superficially pretty pictures, this hefty project is best served anywhere that dialogues might follow, as opposed to cold viewings at New York’s Film Forum, where it opened Wednesday.
Technically, “The New Rijksmuseum” consists of three parts, the foundation being a feature-length, 118-minute behind-the-scenes docu executed in the Frederick Wiseman mold, capturing without comment the hubris of a major public-works project. That film, made in 2008, ends with the farewell concert for museum director Ronald de Leeuw, who resigns as multiple delays push the opening date indefinitely into the future. Hoogendijk and her crew return for two additional hourlong segments, chronicling the public outcry (including heated town-hall sessions) and private struggle spawned by the formidable project.
Hoogendijk’s documentary opens in 2005 with semi-abstract images of the early renovation work, suggesting a spirit of archaeological excavation. (That film ends with the collection still under wraps in storage, which explains the early sense of futility and exasperation as museum planners try to unearth the collection, whereas the two later episodes feel more like reality-TV accounts of the scramble before a big event.)
What “The New Rijksmuseum” doesn’t do is hold viewers’ hands on a tour of the facility — an enormous, gothic-looking superstructure very much in the style of Amsterdam’s Central Station, designed by the same architect on the other side of town — or its extensive collection. For that, one must travel all the way to the Netherlands, where you might discover that many of the biggest battles waged in the film have essentially been lost: no grand entrance, no annex, no significant modern-art holdings.
Naturally, opportunistic contractors and slow-moving government entities pose setbacks, but the team responsible for the renovation also faces a challenge from the public — the very entity their efforts are supposed to serve. As it happens, Amsterdam is a city dominated by bicyclists, and nowhere are those risk-prone riders more dangerous to pedestrians than at the base of the Rijksmuseum, where they zip through a central passage that divides the ground floor of Pierre Cuypers’ massive building in two.
Early on, the cyclists object to the museum’s new entry, as envisaged by architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz, who won the contract on the strength of a proposal sure to jeopardize bicycle traffic through the building. In public hearings, the cyclists’ short-sighted demand for convenience ultimately trumps what might have been a spectacular new solution. Visit the Rijksmuseum today, and you may miss the entrance entirely (as I did on a recent trip), so understated is the compromised solution — a reminder of that great form-over-function maxim: “All good architecture leaks.”
Scrapping plans for the grand entrance marks the first of many concessions over the next eight years, as de Leeuw and his staff grapple with an obvious inferiority complex vis-a-vis similar institutions worldwide. The Rijksmuseum is no Louvre, with its dramatic I.M. Pei-designed pyramid and superior holdings, and yet their task remains to make a first-class showcase from what they have. In its favor, the Rijksmuseum has Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” as well as several breathtaking Vermeers and a few minor Van Goghs (whose most important works are hanging in the Van Gogh Museum down the street). But its collection is ultimately — and predictably — a bit too Dutch, with almost no contemporary art to speak of.
That latter failing serves as the focus of “Part 3,” as Taco Dibbits (passed over for de Leeuw’s job in favor of Wim Pijbes) tries to expand the museum’s 20th-century holdings within the org’s relatively limited means. The only estimate comes in at double the €40 million ($55 million) budget, leaving Dibbits to go the piece-by-piece route, where a crucial work (Delft-born Jan Schoonhoven’s “Fan Shutters”) slips through his fingers at auction (to be redeemed by the acquisition of Ferdi’s fur-covered “Wombtomb”).
The final hour concentrates mostly on finishing touches, including far more than anyone cares to know about the thought process behind the paint color chosen for the museum’s interior — a decision that acquires the comic absurdity of a Joseph Heller novel, as the decision-makers paint, repaint, re-plaster and then paint the walls again.
Meanwhile, over the course of four hours, a side character emerges as the film’s quiet hero: Menno Fitski, who manages the museum’s Asian pavilion and looks like a young Matthew Broderick, becomes the unwavering note of hope, unbroken by the experience’s bureaucratic obstacle course. At one point, he stands in two inches of water and tries to imagine what the room will look like once his treasure — two 14th-century wooden guards, rescued from an old Japanese temple — has been stationed there, and his forward-looking optimism lifts us to the finish line.
Those eager to see more of the art may be disappointed to find a documentary that pays more attention to cracks in the walls than the work itself, though the film offers a rare glimpse at the process of selecting and restoring those paintings that will eventually go on display. While it may seem banal to most, this curatorial cull reveals the powerful aesthetic-shaping influence of museums (few visitors ever think to ask who chooses what they see, or why). By focusing on such details, Hoogendijk has created an artifact that, while not exactly elegant, 400 years hence may prove as vital a window into Amsterdam culture as any of the Dutch masterpieces hanging in the museum itself.