Norway / Sweden, 1976
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 19 June 2005
Source Project X Distribution 35mm Print
Features: The Radical Histories of Peter Watkins
Reviews: Punishment Park
With the critical derision that met the release of his only major-studio film, Privilege, in 1967, and with an offer to produce a film with Sandrews Film Production in Sweden the following year, Peter Watkins began what was to be a permanent self-exile from his native England. And with the exception of the making of Punishment Park in 1970, much of that exile has been spent in the countries of Scandinavia, where Watkins has made some half-dozen films (beginning with The Gladiators and ending with his 1994 film on August Strindberg, The Freethinker) in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Edvard Munch, made for Norwegian television, is in many ways the most important film of this period in Watkins’ career. It is a rich and intensely personal film, representing a widening breadth of subjects, concerns, languages, and milieux in his filmmaking. In documenting the private and personal struggles that accompany the Norwegian painter’s artistic innovations, Watkins also explores the great social upheavals of the late nineteenth century. Rather than focus exclusively on Munch’s own view of the world (one often blinkered by passion, jealousy, and repression), the film also encompasses much of the hardship and unrest of Munch’s time. Watkins’ film frequently cuts away to “interviews” with factory workers or child laborers, and, in the midst of Munch’s family quarrels, artistic struggles, and ill-fated dalliances, his persistent, doleful voiceover interjects facts about labor and prostitution. (In the mid-1880s in what was then Kristiania, over one third of the labor force was composed of children, many of whom worked twelve-hour days; and prostitution was mainly organized by the state for the benefit of a nonetheless moralistic bourgeoisie.)
As he had done in his previous film, Punishment Park, Watkins here enlists the help of a largely non-professional cast, allowing them to bring their own ideas, research, and opinions to the historical figures they embody. The goal (which Watkins has consistently pursued ever since) is a maximally inclusive film project, one that is even a little messy, but not univocal, authoritative, or in any strict sense, auteurist. That being said, however, Edvard Munch is also the work of a master editor, brilliantly assembled in a chronology that follows the most fervidly experimental period of the artist’s career with constant divergences and interruptions from the past. Munch, with his personal fixations on a childhood filled with “illness, insanity, and death,” and on a traumatic affair with a married woman, pursues his artistic experimentation under a constant assault from the ghosts of the past. Watkins artfully constructs his film around Munch’s distracted inner world, with its obsessions and maddening repetitions, through fast, intricate, but never frenzied, cutting that recalls the early features of Alain Resnais.
Edvard Munch is, then, a further project of Watkins’ historical materialism in film, intersecting past and present in a way that challenges conventional or authoritative narratives of the past and its meaning. But Watkins examines not only the social reforms of late nineteenth century Europe, but also the persistence of memory in an individual’s inner life. Indeed, it is Edvard Munch’s own painting, “Death in the Sickroom,” that best exemplifies Watkins own cinematic practice. In this large canvas, Munch paints the scene of his sister Sophie’s death when the artist was a child. And mourning for the sick child are the members of Munch’s family, painted not as they were at the time of Sophie’s death, but at the time that Munch made the painting, some twenty years later. Such an image reveals the impulse to force past, present, and future into dialogue with each other, an impulse that is at the heart of all of Watkins’ films.