1,001 Nights at the Museum: The New Rijksmuseum

12/18/2013 4:00 AM |

The New Rijksmuseum
Directed by Oeke Hoogendijk

“A process in which no one wants to take a risk is too Dutch for me,” says architect Antonio Cruz of Cruz y Ortiz, the firm in charge of designing the renovation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. He says this in late 2005, just two years into what will wind up being a 10-year project to renovate the beloved museum, one threatened by risk-averse politicians, greedy contractors, short-sighted curators and a tyrannical cyclists’ association. “I spend more time on cyclists than on Rembrandt,” whines Wim Pijbes, the museum’s new director-general. “It’s my fate.” Director Hoogendijk tracks the project through pitched disputes, captivating artworks and vivid characters in this surprisingly gripping two-part, four-hour documentary.

The personalities involved are what make The New Rijksmuseum so engrossing. There’s the quirky and ponderous caretaker Leo van Gerven, the dreamy Asian art curator Menno Fitski, the sage outgoing director-general Ronald de Leeuw, and the stoic director of collections Taco Dibbits (real name!). More than serving as talking heads in some rudimentary museum documentary, they’re given the time and attention to become full-fledged characters with dynamic subplots. “This building is just as important to me as a wife would be,” van Gerven says, his devotion to the temporarily vacant museum seeming at once sweet and melancholy. When his office of 10 years is demolished right before the reopening, his sadness is unmistakable.

By giving so much life to the curators, administrators, staffers, activists, politicians and architects who figure into this sprawling drama—not to mention the beautifully photographed building itself—Hoogendijk has created something that feels nothing like a conventional documentary. With startlingly clear storytelling she constructs a narrative of maddening bureaucratic conflict and administrative indecision set off by the hopes and dreams of the Rijksmuseum’s staff and designers. At times the project’s overly decorous showdowns and interminably delayed gratification evoke an HBO drama or a Victorian novel. An even more apt point of comparison is the Rijksmseum’s star attraction, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” an enormous and arresting painting whose many richly detailed figures transmit vivid inner lives filled with clashing and complimentary histories, dreams and disappointments.

Opens December 18