Sweden / Norway, 1976
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 11 May 2006
Source Project X / New Yorker DVD
Features: The Radical Histories of Peter Watkins
The artist biopic is a genre whose pitfalls both greater and lesser directors—whether they be Robert Altman with Vincent and Theo or Ed Harris with Pollock—find it difficult to avoid. Too often the audience is treated to a plodding and literal-minded narrative of the artist’s slow progress towards recognition, the ups-and-downs of his or her emotional life, the hostility or lack of understanding from the critical community, the indifference of society and the paying public, with the art works themselves reduced to the status of mere illustration of biography. What gets lost is any insight into the process of producing art, which is why films that focus on the act of creating a single painting to the exclusion of the biographical elements (masterpieces like Jacques Rivette’s four-hour version of La Belle Noiseuse or Victor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun) are so much more rewarding.
Judging by Edvard Munch, this magnificent film on the life and work of the Norwegian painter, Peter Watkins is as dissatisfied as anyone with the deficiencies of the genre. Of course, Watkins is a man famously angry with the state of the world, in terms of both its political systems and audiovisual institutions. He has formulated the term the “Monoform” to designate conventional Hollywood-based filmmaking practices in cinema and TV, practices that close off possibilities for alternative aesthetic approaches; that close down any potential dialogue through a film between the filmmaker and the audience; that work to inhibit critical thinking on the part of the audience; and that aim to eliminate any wider social or political critique arising out of a film. Watkins sees himself as deliberately marginalised by film and TV institutions and by the press precisely because of his political/aesthetic views (which for him can not be separated). It’s clear from the way that Edvard Munch returns again and again to the hostile reception Munch’s work received from critics and the public that Watkins identifies in this respect with the Norwegian artist.
Edvard Munch was made in Norway in 1973 as a Norwegian-Swedish TV co-production, at a time when Watkins was in self-imposed exile (which has continued ever since) from his native Britain after the banning by the BBC of The War Game, his “documentary” of an imaginary nuclear attack, and the critical drubbing of Privilege, his excoriation of the nexus between popular youth culture and state political control. Edvard Munch’s 210-minute TV version was then re-edited as a 174-minute film for theatrical release in 1976. (The latter is what New Yorker has now released on DVD.)
This is a film that resists neat categorisation. Is it a fiction feature film or is it a documentary? In truth, it’s a mixture of both. The bulk of the film consists of recreations of scenes from Munch’s life, principally covering the years 1884-1894, when Munch found his subject matter (the pain and isolation of the individual) and his expressionistic style. The narrative essentially leaves Munch at the age of 31 and barely addresses the remaining fifty years of his life. Watkins’ own antipathy towards conventional feature filmmaking and his documentary background lead him to cast the film entirely with non-professional actors, many of whom—as the credits have it—”express their own opinions and feelings in this film.” These opinions and feelings are conveyed through another “documentary” aspect of the film, where the actors/characters speak directly to the camera in simulated interviews. This technique is used particularly with the female characters, who thereby offer a critique of the very male-centred Bohemian world of artists and intellectuals that Munch frequented in Kristiania (the earlier, contemporary name for Oslo) and Berlin.
A further layering of documentary is provided by Watkins’ own voiceover narration and analysis. There’s a faithfulness here to the authenticity of source language, so that the English voiceover is played off against the languages spoken by the actors—mainly Norwegian, but also German, French, and Swedish. But the purpose of the voiceover is to answer Watkins’ own dissatisfaction with the standard biopic genre format, to enable him to enlarge and expand perspectives beyond the narrow ones of Munch’s own life and social background, to provide a social and political context.
One method of contextualisation is the way the narrator marks a year not only in terms of Munch’s personal and artistic life but also in relation to the wider world. So, in introducing 1888, he makes reference to Strindberg, Van Gogh, an unemployment demonstration in Rome being suppressed by the military, and Wilhelm II becoming the German Kaiser. References are to everything from Hitler’s birth to famine in Russia. In a sense, it’s a superficial technique—the events named almost never impinge on the world of the film—but its point is to posit a social and political world beyond Munch’s life. It also underlines a certain critical distance on the part of the film towards the character of Munch.
But editing proves to be an even more significant way Watkins achieves this contextualisation, the juxtaposition of two scenes to bring out a contrastive and dialectical relationship. In the opening sequence we are first offered an emblematic shot of Munch staring into the camera: this is a common image throughout the film which both reproduces images from Munch’s paintings and deliberately breaks one of the basic rules of conventional filmmaking, thereby—for Watkins—erasing the distance between film and viewer. Then, a doctor, whom we will only later identify as Munch’s brother Peter Andreas, explains the prevalence of consumption (the nineteenth-century term for tuberculosis) in Kristiana, and his voice continues over the title credits, which then segue into the following shot. This is an interview with a worker, shot in an overt documentary style (a grainy image, the subject looking straight into the camera/at the interviewer, abrupt zoom-in, etc).
Already, from the start, the film both positions Munch as the central subject of the film and shows its interest in wider concerns, underlying the privileges of class that Munch enjoyed. Isn’t there also a subtle critique of Munch’s position? As much as Watkins identifies with Munch the artist, he also shows that Munch and his fellow Bohemians’ revolt against Norwegian bourgeois society never really addressed its class inequities.
This style of contrastive editing is the underlying structure of the film, which Watkins uses to stunning effect. It’s not only the means for Watkins to sketch the social and political background to Munch’s life, but it is also the structuring narrative style of the film. Shots are generally kept very short, which works to the advantage of the non-professional actors. Within one sequence, the shots will range across time and place. There are recurring images from Munch’s past (“past” from the point of view of the film’s historical present, starting in 1884), principally the memories of his favourite sister Sophie’s death from TB when he was fourteen, of his own near-death from the disease as a young boy, and of his mother before her death, also from TB, when he was five. In the film’s “present”, we constantly return to scenes from Munch’s long-running and obsessive affair with “Mrs. Heiberg” (as Munch calls her in his diaries; the film is at one with Munch here and never reveals her real name of Milly Thaulow).
But these linkages across time and place within a single sequence are not only effected visually, through the juxtaposition of shots from different scenes, but also aurally. A whole range of different sound sources are used: Watkins’ English-language voiceover narration; readings in Norwegian from Munch’s diaries, written in the third person; dialogue from individual scenes; statements to the camera in the simulated interviews; music. In addition, the diegetic sound sources will not necessarily be aligned with the image they come from, so the total effect is of a rich collage of sound and image, which at one time reflects Munch’s subjectivity (stream-of-consciousness) and at others operates thematically, with the film’s narrative creating the connections. This ties Edvard Munch to the innovative narrative filmmaking of the early sixties (take Alain Resnais’ work of the time as the paradigm) and makes viewing the film a thrilling experience.
Watkins makes the affair with Mrs. Heiberg central to Munch’s life. It’s one marked by a certain incomprehension on both sides (but more on his side than hers), and for Munch’s part by guilt (the legacy of his father’s religiosity) and, after it goes bad, abject and obsessive jealousy—there are even scenes of Munch stalking Mrs. Heiberg with her husband or with other lovers. But even when other women come into Munch’s life, in particular the sexually liberated Dagny Juell in Berlin, Munch—and the film—constantly return to images of Mrs. Heiberg. In a rather old-fashioned approach to art criticism, the narrator locates the prime meaning of Munch’s work in his biography; so, the narrator will talk of jealousy and suffering as being the themes of the work over an image of Mrs. Heiberg.
Watkins’s conception here is very romantic and emotional, and very effective, too, although the critical social/political concerns are essentially put aside in the latter part of the film. There’s a romantic melancholy here that puts me in mind of The Age of Innocence (a much later film, of course)—partly because the image of Munch and Mrs. Heiberg standing by the seashore silhouetted against an orange-red sky is so like the scene where Newland Archer watches Madame Olenska standing by the seashore, willing her to turn; but more importantly for a similar sense of emotional loss, of a relationship whose potentialities were ever fully attained, of the feeling of a life in some sense blighted by this loss.
In the final sequence, the film reaches an emotional climax. After following Munch’s development as an artist, his move into lithograph production, the narrator identifies the dance of life as his abiding thematic, illustrating this with a flashback shot (one that we’ve already seen) of Mrs. Heiberg staring at Munch as both sit in silence. This is the final image before the end credits; but then as the credits continue, we see Mrs. Heiberg move closer to kiss Munch (a shot we’ve already seen some minutes before), and, to underline the melancholy of the moment, the narrator projects into the future, as he does on occasion, telling us of the futures in store for a number of the characters, ending with Mrs. Heiberg, who, he says, will divorce for the second time in 1911 and “she and Edvard Munch will never meet again”. And the final moment of the film is an account, presumably from Munch’s diaries:
I felt as if there were invisible threads between us, I felt as if invisible threads from her hair still twisted themselves around me, and when she completely disappeared there over the ocean, then I felt still how it hurt where my heart bled because the threads could not be broken.
The film Edvard Munch has moved far from the social/political/historical contextualisation it drew in its early part. Here, identification with Munch’s subjective vision is absolute, in an ending that is emotional, romantic, melancholic, and quite moving.