Thursday, September 19, 2013


Art, life, past, present merge in meditative 'Museum Hours'

If you've ever been to the venerable Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, you're in for a nostalgic treat with the film, Museum Hours. But you need not have ever been to Vienna to be drawn into the odd, languid spell cast by this Austrian-American co-production. Anyone who has ever haunted any Old World museum with a rich collection of Late Middle Ages and Renaissance paintings may find herself strangely beguiled by this meditation on art and life, past and present, and the many ways and places in which they intersect.

The film is written and directed by American Jem Cohen, who has an extensive list of credits in music videos and documentary shorts. Museum Hours has a bit of a documentary vibe to it; the main character, a museum guard, narrates his thoughts and observations as he goes about his daily life, and onscreen conversations have an unscripted feel. There's not much in the way of plot or action, yet the film is thematically rich in its ideas on the secret symbolism of pictures, and art as the social media of its day.
Bruegel, "Fight Between Carnival and Lent," 1559

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a uniformed guard at the KHM. He spends his days on a chair in a niche before a heavy wooden door and behind a red velvet rope, although he often gets up and wanders around the colossal picture galleries.

His favorite is the Bruegel room, large canvases teeming with messy life in all its diversity—allegorical wedding or hunting scenes, religious or mythological scenes radically reimagined in terms of 16th Century peasant life.

Johann "always sees something new in the paintings" that continue to speak to the human condition.

One day, he strikes up a conversation with Canadian visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara). A distant cousin is in a Viennese hospital, and in the absence of any other family, Anne has come to spend time with her. Johann offers his services as a translator, and soon they become allied art explorers, soaking up the pictures and viewing art through the lens of life (and vice versa). It's especially fun to see the way filmmaker Cohen composes every exterior shot like a Bruegel canvas. (Read more)

The lack of narrative drive will frustrate some viewers, but Museum Hours is more about reverie than story. It would make a great double-bill in your Netflix queue with Lech Majewski's splendidly nutty Bruegel-movie mash-up, The Mill and the Cross, but it will be so much more compelling on a big screen.

Meanwhile, take a mini virtual tour of the museums of Vienna in this blog I posted after my visit there last summer!


  1. Beautifully written review of a beautiful film. Love that you post photos with your review. Ian