Never one to stick with genre conventions, but a filmmaker consistently true to
his own rule-breaking techniques, director/editor Peter Watkins explores the early
life of influential Norwegian painter Edvard Munch in a docu-drama that was radical in 1974, but feels completely contemporary in 2008.
The film spans Munch's teen years to mid-career as an established and controversial painter, as captured by a fly-on-the-wall film unit who happened to be following the artist. It's an effective ploy carried forward from Culloden (1964) and Privilege (1967), but besides a handful of direct eye glances with the camera and some on-camera interviews with Munch's family, the characters in Edvard Munch barely acknowledge the camera crew's presence.
One could assume that would render Edvard Munch into a voyeuristic, if not exploitive experience, but it's actually the opposite: right from the traumatic opening that shows TB assaulting Munch's family, we're dropped right into the drama, but Watkins ensures we keep a respectful distance, and allow the historical figures to live out their tormented lives without any meddling.
Watkins himself provides regular narration (that includes portions drawn from Munch's unpublished diaries) to bridge scenes, and he notes the passage of time not by using antiquated title cards or newspaper headlines, but by noting famous historical events - Hitler's birth, the erection of the Eiffel Tower - in the narration.
In Privilege, Watkins took the core story of a pop idol and transformed it into an examination of what happens when an artist doesn't conform to a domineering governmental or corporate entity. The big different between the two films is that Edvard Munch is a celebration of perseverance: in spite of personal tragedies, self-destructive behaviour, and media pressure, Munch eventually proves the critics wrong, and wins the battle to remain a fiercely independent soul.
Part of this is due to his temperament – toughened from a hard childhood – and from Munch being a hugely prolific and savvy artist. Although Watkins never offers a direct opinion on Munch being commercially savvy, one quickly realizes he was unique for adopting new forms of artistic expression – wood cuts, copper engravings, lithography – and commercial reproduction that ensured his work could be bought, exhibited or showcased anywhere in Europe.
The fact he was sometimes working on three paintings at one time in hotel rooms signifies both a maniacal artistic drive, and an urgency to outgun the critics; by producing a massive body of work for private and public collections, he was ensuring his name and art remained in the public and artistic forums, and inadvertently (or deliberately?) branded himself as a master of dark and disturbing themes.
Like Ingmar Bergman's TV productions - Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and Fanny and Alexander (1982) - Watkins made two versions of Edvard Munch: a 220 min. TV
version (telecast over two nights), and a shorter 174 min. theatrical version (available as a separate DVD release from Project X/New Yorker Video).
For the theatrical cut, Watkins, who also served as the film's editor, compacted the film's pacing through scene trims, deletions, and shorter pauses visual on Munch's art, and he re-ordered the positioning of the film's dense sound montages, all of which make both versions significantly different viewing experiences.
The TV version, however, sometimes feels like an early edit with creative decisions the filmmaker refused to sacrifice.
The improvised dialogue is sparse yet feels natural, but the actors' reactions are held for long stretches to allow audiences to absorbed a scene's emotional content – much like gazing upon a painting in an art gallery. Watkins, though, obsessively repeats footage from Munch's recent and distant past in montages that become increasingly tiresome with Watkins regurgitating many shots, such as the artist's siblings coughing up blood from TB.
It's as though the director felt audiences might not grasp the impact of these events, so he indulges in revolving free-form montages of sounds and images to remind us why Munch paints such daring, shocking work. Because the montages reuse footage from the same time periods, it has a tendency to fuzz up the film's chronology as well, and render sections of the TV version quite dull.
The sad irony is that the theatrical cut moves too fast, and feels like a second or third attempt to truncate the longer version into something faster and punchier, marring Watkins' genuinely poetic edits.
Also tweaked is the brilliant sound design which has Watkins applying sounds from other footage, sequences, and time periods to infer his past relationships, his state of mind, or as an impressionistic stressor (such as the moans and breathes of his mistress, whose eventual rejection left a permanent gash in his psyche; and specific source music cues that immediately have audiences understanding what memories or events are wafting through Munch's mind).
The sound montages are nevertheless beautiful creations: the scraping of pencil, brush, or knife on a canvas is sometimes the only sound over a lengthy scene, and it allows audiences to feel the creative rush as Munch's ideas are drawn, revised, or obliterated. Watkins later applies these key sounds over shots that visually have no relation, but are tied to Munch's thoughts and mental state, thereby helping us comprehend the depth of Munch's frustrations with people as well as his critics.
The only major flaw in both versions of Edvard Munch is that Watkins focuses too much on Munch's involvement with the bohemian clique in Kristiania (known as the Boheme), which grinds the teleplay's midsection to a halt; the relations and friendships within the group (which included Hans Jaeger, Stanislaw Przybyszewski, and August Strindberg) were clearly vital to Munch's character and his artistic evolution, but the scenes often repeat the same information (they argue a lot, they're a bitter batch of misogynistic men with token hussies, and they're incestuous with their use shared mistresses), and Watkins' elliptical edits make the scenes sometimes quite ponderous.
Watkins' mania for historical accuracy yields some superb set décor, beautiful costumes, and glimpses of period social quirks. The film's cinematography by Odd Geir Saether (who also photographed two of Watkins' later films, The Journey / Resan and La Commune) is first-rate and very naturalistic, yet still evocative of the colours and locales that influenced Munch.
he mono sound mix is an elaborate blend of effects, dialogue, and source music (there's no original score), and the narration is in English, with English subtitles provided for the Norwegian (and brief bits of French and German) dialogue. The transfer is quite clean, although the film is very grainy in low-light shots, due to the originating 16mm negative. (It's a superior transfer to the grainier theatrical version, however.)
The Extras - Part A: Short Films
Whereas the separate DVD of the theatrical cut has no extras (booklet excepted), this 2-disc edition comes with some important supportive material that fills in the middle and final section of Munch's life.
Watkins ends the film abruptly around 1908, and offers no further details after Munch's eight month stay at a mental clinic, so the three short films produced to promote Norway 's culture add needed closure; after leaving the clinic several months later, he ultimately settled down at Ekely , Norway , where he died in 1944 at the age of 80.
Moments in the Life of Edvard Munch is a 1957 black & white film that efficiently traces Munch's growth and impact as one of Norway 's most internationally recognized and renowned artists. Director Martin S, Knutsen mixes archival stills of the Munch family with the artist's work, including early efforts that reveal his amazing shift from naturalistic sketches to the expressionism and dark imagery that made his career, and drew heated anger from conservative art critics and art fans.
There's also comparisons between the pretty resort town of Asgardstrand and his sea and waterfront paintings, shots of the small, humble studio where he painted, and further examples of his engravings and woodcuts.
The Thiel Gallery in Stockholm, Sweden, is used as an example of the museums which slowly began to build collections of Munch's work in spite of the nasty critiques, and the
doc closes with segments on his final years in Ekely, where he built a huge studio and housed his own private collection, which he bequeathed to the city of Oslo.
J. Kramer-Johansen's music adaptation for the patchwork score contains some lovely closing passages, and there's a good epilogue on Munch's final years, and the city's plans to erect The Munch Museum.
That edifice - a single level, modern complex with beautiful clean lines – is showcased in Ulf Balle Royem's 1963 colour short The Munch Museum in Oslo, and features plenty of glimpses of the building, with its advanced lighting and storage features. In addition to small montages of visitors, storage facilities, restoration and preservation efforts, probably the most intriguing aspect is the display of Munch's art on moveable walls that allow people to approach over a thousand works without any barriers or obstructions.
Each of the shorts bubble with national pride, and it's interesting to learn how early apartment buildings were specifically designed with top floor units for artists, offering an open loft design, and large windows for maximum daylight. These early units are covered in the opening of the 1953 black and white short From Ekely: The City and the Artists.
The land on Munch's estate was further developed to house a kind of cooperative that had artist-friendly homes where painters, sculptors, etc. could work while producing pieces for the city. The overly idyllic short covers the mini-town's erection, philosophy, and inhabitants (including a happy new arrival with family), but also includes more footage and stills of Munch's studio during the artist's lifetime.
The DVD's lone curio is a 6 minutes of home movie footage found in a 9.5mm Baby-Pathe camera owned by Munch. Although it features country and city shots, as well as footage of Munch and his aunt Inger, it's basically shaky-cam home movies, with most of the images blurry and spastic.
Munch may have been a great artist, but the camera reveals a common problem among early adopters unfamiliar with the nature of film: Munch, as cameraman, frequently scours for a subject, holds for a beat, and moves on to another 'still' image - unaware that the final product is just a mush of badly rendered images. (The DVD booklet includes a detailed description of each sequence, but Arne Eggum's attempts to suggest Munch was making an experimental film is wafer-thin. They're just vacation movies.)
While rare and unique, they're of archival and curiosity value, and the supplied video transfer comes from a VHS source, with minor tracking lines rippling at the lower frame.
The Extras - Part B: DVD Booklet
More important than the rare film extras is the booklet. Fattened to 55 pages, it contains Joseph A. Gomez' full chapter on the film from his 1979 book Peter Watkins, where he covers a wealth of production details, as well as analyzing what he considers Watkins' most personal film. Some similar material is also addressed by Watkins in his patented ‘self-interview.'
In addition to differing perspectives of the film, the respective analyses address Watkins' first impressions of Munch's work, using 200+ non-actors and improvised dialogue, attempts to capture the visual power of Munch's art in the cinematography, and the film's troubles after the TV cut had aired.
The latter aspect is significant, because Edvard Munch was very well received by viewers as well as some critics, but the production company, Norway 's NRK, seemed to feel jealous that a foreigner could produce such a marvelous work on a national treasure. The film was barely in circulation for decades, Watkins' attempt to send a theatrical cut to film festivals was bungled by the network, and the audio stems from the master mixes were destroyed for storage space – mandating the use of an inferior 16mm optical track for the film's DVD restoration.
The tragedy is that Watkins' hopes to parlay the film's success into further projects for NRK dissolved, and the film became a bit of a lost classic. Certainly one aspect that's perhaps aided the film's journey from oblivion to DVD is the involvement of DVD labels instead of Watkins spearheading the project by himself. It's clear from his self-interview that a level of bitterness remains (and rightly so), but Watkins ought to feel some vindication, knowing one of his most dynamic artistic achievements is finally widely available.
Edvard Munch is a truly unique reformulation of the docu-drama format, and while it has its share of flaws, the film shows a director whose command of film technique and genre-bending is inspirational.
Films by Peter Watkins available on DVD from Project X / New Yorker Video include Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959), The Forgotten Faces (1961), Cullodan (1964), The War Game (1965), Privilege (1967), The Gladiators (1969), Punishment Park (1971), Edvard Munch (1974), and The Freethinker (1994), and La Commune (2000) from First Run Features.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan