“In the Uffizi”, the documentary by Corinna Belz and Enrique Sánchez Lansch about the Florentine Museum, is above all a portrait of its German director
Can you portray an institution like the Florentine Uffizi Gallery, one of the most important museums in the world, in a 90-minute documentary? You can at least try, even if in the film the house librarian recommends five days for the tour alone.
In terms of title and claim, the work by Corinna Belz and Enrique Sánchez Lansch is reminiscent of the great institutional portraits of the American Frederick Wiseman. His long films about the National Gallery in London, the Paris Opera Ballet and the New York Public Library set new standards. Like Wiseman, Belz and Lansch choose an observational, comment-free film style and assemble impressions from in front of and behind the scenes in loose succession. However, one soon notices that they distance themselves from Wiseman’s style-forming approach on one crucial point, and that has nothing to do with the shorter running time. Wiseman’s radicalism consists in not serving any hierarchies, neither in form nor in the institutions depicted. On the other hand, there is the conservative approach of portraying an institution from the head.
Belz, who shot her best-known films about the painter Gerhard Richter, the writer Peter Handke and the curator Kasper König, is once again portraying a powerful man in the cultural scene: the main protagonist of the film has been the German director of the Uffizi since 2015, Eike Schmidt. What appears to be an institutional portrait is actually very largely a director’s portrait. In this, however, it is far less in-depth than Belz’s approaches to Richter and Handke, who persistently led their dominant protagonists to at least the limits of their self-confidence.
Perhaps in this case too, Belz would have made a more convincing film if she had openly portrayed it as a portrait of this art historian and cultural manager. But you don’t learn anything about his career or his specialty, the ebony sculptures of the Medici. Even his affinity for digital publicity and social networks, which is unusual for Florentine museums, plays no role. Instead, you experience Schmidt as a friendly boss who likes to bow to an employee’s opinion in low-threshold debates such as printing business cards.
In every scene, Schmidt appears confident and purposeful; He is a man who allows himself to be addressed as “Mr. Director” on the phone, but always seems to be communicating on an equal footing – colleagues can also dare to answer a cell phone call in informal work discussions.
It is difficult to imagine that in 2020, after the end of the shooting, all four members of his scientific advisory board would resign in the dispute over a Raffael loan approved by Schmidt. They had long drawn up a list of the 24 most valuable works, against which Schmidt now vetoed as a director. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to consistently portray this media-savvy director, who is very popular in the region, with all facets of his work?
Belz and Lansch are also under his spell when they try to draw a picture of the house at the same time; but the famous collection is only available in fragments. Understandable, just picking out individual works; Interesting aspects can be set especially with less known exhibits. Here it is a work by Andrea Commodi, “Engelsturz”, which Schmidt has fetched from the depot. But the mediation is little deepened. You don’t learn anything about this interesting master of the early baroque and his masterpiece, which today seems almost surreal.
In a fleeting sketch of the individual work areas of a museum, art education, restoration, curatorial work, everything remains on the surface.
Nonetheless, the film does not do without obvious staging, lets the librarian speak directly for the camera over and over again, even the conversation between two visitors at the end of the film seems staged. And hearing a museum attendant rave about his life with the masterpieces in gratitude only obscures the social component.
One can imagine that there are still several better films slumbering in the material being shot, here the disappointment prevails. Not only do you learn little new about this wonderful museum. In the over-presence of the director, the film uses the socio-politically questionable model of the “glass ceiling”. Just as this institution does not emphasize the work of its curators below the director level in its self-portrayal, this film gives them a profile. As if, even after half a millennium of museum history, the principle of court reporting still applies.
In the German media in particular, one experiences time and again an increased interest in the successful work of one’s own compatriots abroad. It is a phenomenon that has been traced back to the post-war period, when it came with the ambiguous drive for national recognition. When a German film with the title “In den Uffizien” mainly tells the story of the German director, it creates an equally ambivalent impression. In contrast, what democratic power do Frederick Wiseman’s films develop through the broad selection of equally weighted protagonists? Anyone who touches on his method on the one hand, and on the other turns it upside down on this political question, obviously has more conservative ideas about the organization of public institutions.
Corinna Belz, this specialist in dominant masculinity in the art world, respectfully pushed Richter and Handke to certain limits. Here it doesn’t even approach the curtain, let alone what could be behind it.
In the offices. Directed by: Corinna Belz, Enrique Sánchez Lansch. D 2020.