In the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, Johann is a security guard who finds a special quiet magic there. One day, a Canadian woman arrives to visit to the city, and the two strike up a friendship through their appreciation of art. That relationship helps put all the other goings-on at the museum and in the city in perspective, as Johann observes and participates in them in a world where art can say so much more than a casual visitor might know.
Kenneth Chisholm ([email protected])
User Reviews: Museum Hours (2012) is a unique film, written and directed by Jem Cohen. One of the stars, Mary Margaret O’Hara added "additional dialogue."
Although I described this movie as "a unique departure from standard filmmaking," it does have a plot. The plot is conventional enough. Mary Margaret O’Hara plays Anne, a middle-aged Canadian woman who isn’t exactly poor, but has to borrow the money to travel from Montreal to Vienna to be with her desperately sick cousin, who is hospitalized.
Bobby Sommer plays Johann, a guard at the famous Kunsthistoriches Museum. They meet and interact, and become friends. (No romance–Johann lets Clara, and us, know that he’s gay.) They see each other in the museum, they go out for dinner, and sometimes they act like tourists. It sounds conventional enough, but it isn’t.
It isn’t conventional because Jem Cohen doesn’t really believe in narrative. He’s a documentary filmmaker, but he doesn’t exactly create the documentary. He goes somewhere, shoots a lot of video, and then fashions that into a documentary. I haven’t seen any of his documentaries, but watching "Museum Hours" makes it fairly clear what they’d look like. That’s because, every so often, Cohen swerves from his narrative, and shows us streets in Vienna, trains, churches, stores, statues. This isn’t the tourists’ Vienna, but Cohen doesn’t just show us grime and degradation either. We start to get a sense of what this large city looks like. (Also, a sense of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, where my wife and I spent seven hours, and could have spent more. It has a great collection.)
This is somewhat unusual filmmaking, but it gets more unusual. Cohen devotes 11 minutes to a (staged) docent presentation by a woman named Gerda. The role is played by an actor name Ela Piplets. She’s called a "Visiting Lecturer" because the museum didn’t want anyone to think that she was really a museum employee. Gerda discusses some of the museum’s many paintings done by Pieter Breughel the Elder. It’s a really great lecture. What makes it more amazing is that Piplets doesn’t speak English! Can you imagine giving a long lecture, in barely accented English, when you’re doing it by rote memory?
We saw this film at the wonderful Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Jem Cohen was present, and it’s obvious by listening to him that he’s going to make films his way, whether he gets rewarded for it or not. He’s a very unusual person.
This film will work well enough on the small screen, but it’s probably better to see it in a theater. It’s really great to see it with the filmmaker present to answer questions. In any event, this movie is worth seeking out and viewing. How often do you see a narrative film (well, sort of) made by a director who doesn’t like narrative filmmaking? This is that film.
Note: Cineaste reviewed this film in its Summer 2014 magazine. There’s some excellent information about this movie on pages 66 and 67.