When a Vienna museum guard befriends an enigmatic visitor, the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum becomes a mysterious crossroads which sparks explorations of their lives, the city, and the ways artworks reflect and shape the world.

Vienna, winter. Johann, a guard at the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum encounters Anne, a foreign visitor called to Austria because of a medical emergency. Never having been to Austria and with little money, she wanders the city in limbo, taking the museum as her refuge. Johann, initially wary, offers help, and they’re drawn into each other’s worlds. Their meetings spark an unexpected series of explorations – of their own lives and the life of the city, and of the way artworks can reflect and shape daily experience. The museum is seen in the film not as an archaic institution housing historical artifacts, but as an enigmatic crossroads in which, through the artworks, a discussion takes place across time with vital implications in the contemporary world. While the “conversations” embodied in the museum’s collection revolve around nothing less than the matters that most concern us all: death, sex, history, theology, materialism, and so on; it’s through the regular lives of the guard and displaced visitor that these heady subjects are brought entirely down to earth and made manifest.

Near the film’s end, Johann and Anne are out exploring on the fringe of the city when her ill friend’s condition suddenly reaches a crisis point.

For some, the film will primarily be an engaging study of two adults whose relationship defies cinematic stereotypes; for others it will be a story-engendered portrait of the city of Vienna; for others, it will mostly serve as a meditation on the crossings between life and art and the museum as intermediary... All of these interpretations are valid and encouraged.

The film got its start in the Bruegel room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Looking at certain paintings there, all from the 16th Century, I was particularly struck by the fact that the central focus, even the primary subject, was hard to pin down. This was clearly intentional, oddly modern (even radical), and for me, deeply resonant. One such painting, ostensibly depicting the conversion of St. Paul, has a little boy in it, standing beneath a tree, and I became somewhat obsessed with him. He has little or nothing to do with the religious subject at hand, but instead of being peripheral, one’s eye goes to him as much as to the saint. He’s as important as anything else in the frame.

I recognized a connected sensibility I’d felt when shooting documentary street footage, which I’ve done for many years. On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they’re constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows... (And it isn’t limited to the physical. The street is also made up of history, folklore, politics, economics, and a thousand fragmented narratives).

In life, all of these elements are free to interweave, connect, and then go their separate ways. Films however, especially features, generally walk a much narrower, more predictable path. How then to make movies that don’t tell us just where to look and what to feel? How to make films that encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even ‘what kind of movie this is’? How to focus equally on small details and big ideas, and to combine some of the immediacy and openness of documentary with characters and invented stories? These are the things I wanted to tangle with, using the museum as a kind of fulcrum. In making movies, I’m at least as inspired by paintings (and sculpture and books and music) as I am by cinema. Maybe this project would bring all of that together for me, a kind of culmination.

Years later, with limited resources but a small, open-minded crew and access to the museum and city in place, I began to trace a simple story. The figure best positioned to watch it all unfold (and with time on his hands to mull things over) would be a museum guard. He would preferably be played by a non-actor with a calm voice who understood odd jobs. I found him in Bobby Sommer. Almost 25 years ago, I saw Mary Margaret O’Hara perform, and I’ve wanted to film her ever since. She is equally sublime and funny and knows a thing or two about not being bound by formulas. She would surely channel things through unusual perspectives, especially if dropped into a city she’d never known and given room to move.

Making this movie could not come from finalizing a script and shooting to fill it in. Instead, it came out of creating a set of circumstances, some carefully guided, others entirely unpredictable. It meant not using sets (much less locking them off); it meant inviting the world in...

There were other important things found in museums that guided me. In the older ones that are so beautifully lit, the visitors begin to look like artworks – each becomes the other. This transference undoes a false sense of historical remove; we stand in front of a depiction 400 or 3000 years old, and there is a mirroring that works in both directions. (This is one of the things that makes old museums sexy, an inherent eroticism which runs counter to the unfortunate, perhaps prevalent notion that they are archaic, staid and somewhat irrelevant.) The phenomenon underscores for me the way that artworks of any time speak to us of our own conditions. The walls separating the big old art museum in Vienna from the street and the lives outside are thick. We had hopes to make them porous.


"...visually the movie is patiently seductive. The notion of a Bruegel-like democratic perspective carries over to the way the film itself is shot."

"... MUSEUM HOURS just lets you do what you want with its ideas, as O’Hara and Sommer connect so naturally and easily that they barely seem to be acting at all."

"Cohen lets his camera linger over the stunning works of art and the faces (and in one offbeat scene, naked bodies) of those admiring them."

"These observed street vignettes and fine art juxtapositions are inspired, as is Sommer's performance as the kindly, world-weary guard, but if that weren't enough, it's worth it just for the scene of O'Hara singing quietly to herself as the last of the daylight slowly leaks out of the frame of a hospital room window."

""The act of watching the film also has something of the magic effect of wandering through a museum, the filmmaker adds... 'What I'm hoping is that the film can be a kind of island for people where they actually sit down and suddenly there's a hush and they can be contemplative.'" - Interview with Jem Cohen

"[MUSEUM HOURS is] a discussion piece that's as much a testament to fine art as it is a languid, contemplative effort of ideas, inspiring the audience to consider how they interpret and appreciate their space and the history behind it."

"MUSEUM HOURS sees avant-garde filmmaker Jem Cohem deviate from his materialist experimentation into a pure Humanist drama."

"Of the critics who have previously written about MUSEUM HOURS, many liken it to an essay film, but there’s something far deeper than that going on when every shot can almost sprout reams of prose on their own. Cohen has made an unpretentious and honest work of art, asking viewers to take everything in to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them."

"Museum Hours acts like a good teacher-- without judging its audience's naivety, it shows us how to appreciate art."

" A gentle and richly persuasive defensive of taking in art as one might take in oxygen, it’s destined for a long life in cinematheques and art galleries."

"There is something rather moving about this suggestion that the austere institution of the museum is at its best when it simultaneously widens and sharpens our palate for what lies beyond it."

"It's a rare beast that movie comes in so quiet and understated yet still packs one hell of a punch. MUSEUM HOURS takes us into a stunningly beautiful other world that we simply don't want to come out of."

"Through a blend of voyeuristic digital cinematography in the museum and 16mm shots of the streets of Vienna, Cohen helps us discover the city and the paintings through the eyes of a tourist, allowing us notice the brushstrokes on and off the canvas."

"[Cohen] has made a film of such intelligence and originality that "radical" seems the only accurate word."

"quietly amazing, sneakily sublime"

David Balzer’s Top 3 Of 2012: Moments Of Grace
"with its jaw-dropping, goosebump-inducing sensitivity to the power of the visual, my favourite art moment of 2012."