The Scenic Route: On Location in Vienna

Premiering at the Viennale, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours looks at the city through new eyes

On The Town | Mark Hamilton | November 2012

First-time actor Bobby Somer plays the guard at Vienna’s KHM (Photo: Museum Hours)

It’s mid-January 2012: a regular night at the Café Weidinger at the intersection of Gablenzgasse and Neubaugürtel – old friends playing billiards, customers sipping on warm drinks, laughter and debate in equal volume. Tonight however, we’re all under the watchful eye of noted American photographer and documentary filmmaker Jem Cohen, capturing footage for Museum Hours, his first foray into narrative storytelling.

Cohen’s camera follows a waiter emerging from a doorway with a tray of steaming cups, a child tugging at the back of his seat, an old man flipping through a newspaper. When a shot meets his expectations, he sends his Vienna-based producer Paolo Calamita over to ask for their permission to use the shot, a momentary intrusion all approached don’t seem to mind. Taking a break from the action to visit the toilet, I find myself facing Cohen’s lens as I exit. Apparently my exit needs work, so we try it again, and this time my subtle ‘post-toilet’ nuances make the grade.

Venturing back out into the frosty evening, Cohen sets his camera up across the street for a shot of the Weidinger’s exterior. A family shuffles by, pushing a pram along the snowy sidewalk and Cohen focuses in, watching patiently as they pass through the frame. "I think that’s the last shot we’ll need," he says. Despite the momentary celebration of a "wrap" on the film, Cohen keeps right on shooting until his plane leaves Austria a few days later.

Flash forward to Summer 2012, and Museum Hours is finished, taking its first bow at film festivals from London to Toronto, garnering strong reviews in The New York Times and Washington Post. The tinkering ended only days before the film’s premiere in competition at Locarno, Cohen an endless perfectionist down to adjusting the colour of individual frames of film.

Capturing the growing friendship between Johann, a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM), portrayed by first-time actor Bobby Somer, and visitor Anne, played by legendary Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, Museum Hours is a film as much about those who observe art as it is about the pieces of famed art hanging on the walls of the KHM. It’s a strikingly patient and quietly moving film.

In an eye-opening and educational sequence mid-film, museum guide Gerda Pachner (Ela Piplits) takes a tour group through the KHM’s Bruegel the Elder collection, revealing hidden secrets within the canvases on display. The juxtaposition is fitting – the film similarly celebrates the city, unveiling new surprises and minor details with each viewing both within the museum and outside on the streets of Vienna. For Cohen – like Bruegel – the biggest of statements is made from the smallest of touches.


"Culture is not a pure-breed"

Museum Hours was Cohen’s second full-length film "made-in-Vienna" – following 2007’s Vic Chesnutt/Silver Mt. Zion collaboration Empires of Tin filmed live at the Gartenbaukino.

"In a place that could perhaps be too comfortable, with its lovely veneer and respectability, [the Viennese understand] that culture is a mongrel, not a ‘pure-breed’, and that it can’t be complacent," Cohen said. "Culture – and by extension the cities that fertilise it – has to challenge the status quo, sometimes just by trying to see things clearly."

Those expecting a Woody Allen-style Euro-travelogue won’t find it here. The Vienna of Museum Hours is one known only to locals, more focused on venues like the lively "Yugo-bar" MMM Espresso and afternoon walks up the Baumgartner Höhe. Johann shows Anne that Vienna is much more than its storied 1st District, revealing the visual pleasures of busy Hernals streets, the Naschmarkt weekend flea-market and the Seegrotte Hinterbrühl. Showing the true Vienna on screen, Museum Hours is a rare cinematic tribute to a city – without artifice or Amélie-style beautification.

"My Vienna is the city of Joseph Roth and other figures who tangled with the complexity and the sadness of the city’s history. I was drawn to this mixture of love and critique," he says. "My Viennale visits always included trips to the KHM, and in allowing me to make a film there, it also proved to be a brave institution. As much as I love the place, I also needed to find ways to challenge them, to try and see them in a new light." And while watching our Vienna, shown truthfully – yet always lovingly – on screen, we understand him.

"I was given the opportunity," Cohen smiled, "and will be forever grateful to Vienna for that."

Museum Hours screens at the 2012 Viennale, 5 Nov., 19:00

14-20 Dec., 19:00 & 21:15


1., Parkring 12

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