During his lifetime, Edvard Munch was
Norway’s most controversial and critically reviled artist. He was also
something of an enigma, and the fact that Peter Watkins’ remarkable 1974
documentary was able to give the mystery of Munch some clarity is one of the
many reasons the film is so fascinating to watch. With the menu option to view
the film in two parts or to play it for the whole uninterrupted three and a
half hours, there might be an understandable feeling of dread when this disc
first slips into the blu-ray player, but you’ve really no need to worry. This
is a very fine film indeed.
Beginning at the start of Munch’s life when
the young Edvard almost died from consumption (a disease that killed both his
mother and his little sister), the film quickly follows him into adulthood where,
as a struggling painter, Munch’s doomed affair with a married woman was
unconsciously set to dominate him and his work for the rest of his days. From
here, Watkins charts Munch’s development as an artist and his evolution through
the different artistic mediums – from paint to etching to woodcuts to
lithography. But there wasn’t a moment when the majority of the critics (and,
seemingly, the public) didn’t despise him. Even when Munch moved to France and
then to Berlin, his art was almost universally maligned. More than that, many
people regarded the frequent exhibitions of his work as scandalous, and the
product of an insane mind. It is remarkable that he persisted, and that two of
his best known masterpieces, ‘The Scream’ and ‘The Vampire’ (not the original
title, it was renamed by one of Munch’s contemporaries), were born during that
period when Munch’s critics were most vociferous.
Watkins dramatizes everything using a cast
of mostly amateur actors, all of whom look convincingly authentic. Geir Westby,
as Munch, and Gro Fraas, as his married lover Mrs Heiberg, are particularly
striking. But the actors rarely speak and, when they do, it is often
direct-to-camera, in heavily stylised monologue. It is an unseen narrator (Peter
Watkins, himself), who tells the story.
But it isn’t just Munch who is documented.
Plenty of time is given to the other men and women who orbit Munch’s world like
discordant satellites, often breaking the fourth wall to stare out at us –
sometimes coy, sometimes confronting – in a way that is deliberately
reminiscent of one of Munch’s portraits. Watkins is also mindful of the passage
of historical time, telling us what is happening in the rest of the world while
Munch’s story unfolds, subtly reminding us that these events are taking place at
a time of massive global unrest. It’s a neat trick that not only sets Munch’s
life in context, it also gives the film nuance and texture.
Having said all of that, and although the
film is also packed with complex social and philosophical themes that mirror
the often morbid psychology of Munch’s art, this is a surprisingly easy
documentary to watch. It is obvious why the great Ingmar Bergman called it “a
work of genius”.
Very highly recommended.
EDVARD MUNCH / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR &
SCREENPLAY: PETER WATKINS / STARRING: GEIR WESTBY, GRO FRAAS, JOHAN HALSBOG,
LOTTE TEIG, GRO JARTO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW