Edvard Munch (1974)

Edvard Munch first published by Film4

Synopsis: Peter Watkins’ recently restored telefilm documents the angst of an artist and an era.

Review: Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch opens with both a text (in Norwegian) and a voice-over (in English, narrated by Watkins) that impart introductory information about both the film’s use of Munch’s diaries as source material and Munch’s mannered style of writing.

The text and speech may run simultaneously, but they differ both in their form and in their specific content, establishing a tension to which viewers will fast grow accustomed. For Edvard Munch is a sprawling, polyphonous biopic, encompassing all the tensions in an artist, his art, his family, his friendships and his society. It is a work so ambitious and encyclopaedic that its three-and-a-half hour duration seems more like a miracle of compression than a symptom of excess.

Originally made for Norwegian and Swedish television, cast with non-professional actors and shot on location in Oslo (called Kristiana in Munch’s day) and Åsgårdstrand, Edvard Munch portrays the artist (Geir Westby) as a man both formed and tormented by a past to which he is always obsessively returning. From a puritanical middle-class family with a long history of disease, madness and death, Munch is shy, distant, sickly, sensitive, neurotic, possessive, gloomy, haunted by unresolved feelings towards his long-dead mother and his domineering father, and painfully confused about the opposite sex. All these personal anxieties end up scraped, scored and splattered onto his dark canvases, encapsulating the cracks and fissures of an era undergoing, and simultaneously resisting, the trauma of change.

The film concentrates on the years 1884 to 1895, a period which covers Munch’s disastrous affair with ‘Mrs Heiberg’ (Gro Fraas), his breakthroughs in Expressionism, the deaths of his father (Johan Halsborg) and brother (Gunnar Skjetne), his involvement with anarchist Hans Jaeger (Kåre Stormark) and the Kristiana bohemians, and later with misogynistic playwright August Strindberg (Alf Kåre Strindberg) and Berlin’s ‘Black Pig’ circle, as well as Munch’s experiments with different forms of graphics.

Into this more-or-less linear chronology is woven a dense, disruptive thread of recurrent flashbacks to Munch’s most formative childhood experiences (the death of his mother and sister, his own near death from a pulmonary haemorrhage), as well as ‘interviews’ with Munch’s family, acquaintances, fellow citizens and critics, and contextual commentary from the narrator that anchors the artist’s life to a broader historical and ideological framework (in a decade that also saw important publications by Marx and Freud, the births of Hitler and Goerring, the US annexation of Pearl Harbour as a naval base and much social unrest in Europe).

This kaleidoscopic overlaying of sounds and images from different time periods mirrors both the frenetic free associations found in Munch’s diaries, and his evolving method of painting, with its endless layering and reworking, and its disavowal of perspective or spatio-temporal conventions. Even the self-consciously artificial interviews to camera, already used by Watkins in Culloden (1964), The War Game (1965) and Punishment Park (1971), here reflect Munch’s own practice of painting his subjects so that they appear to stare directly out at the viewer from the canvas.

Similarly, DP Odd-Geir Sæther’s mannered arrangement of characters within the frame mimics Munch’s own stylised composition. Here the camera’s intrusive and probing scrutiny, whether it is poring over a half-naked maid, a grave sister or aunt or Munch’s own haunted face, is not unlike the intense gaze of the artist himself, always attentive to the universal in the particular, and never shying from the awkward or ugly.

Watkins’ visual and auditory stream of consciousness establishes a rich dialectic, wherein bourgeois manners are set against the reality of child labour and state-sponsored prostitution. Munch’s views on his troubled relationships are offset by interviews offering a female perspective. Critics’ suggestions that Munch’s art is ‘sick’ or ‘diseased’ are juxtaposed to images of him vomiting streams of blood at age 13. News of his brother’s death is accompanied by wedding music, and the significant men and women from different stages in the artist’s life overlap in a fluid continuum.

Here individual and state, rich and poor, man and woman, artist and muse, establishment and apostate, are all shown to be intimately, indissolubly linked by the kind of “invisible threads” that Munch described in his diaries. If Watkins’ associative editing replicates Munch’s own desultory thought processes and artistic techniques, this is not where the similarities between the director and his subject end. Like Munch, Watkins is an intense, challenging and deadly serious artist of the counterculture, whose products have been widely attacked and even (in the case of The War Game) banned, leading him to live in self-exile from his native land.

Throughout Edvard Munch, Watkins seems to relish cataloguing repeatedly the critical reception of Munch, which was, absurd as it may now seem, almost universally hostile and deeply hurtful. It is difficult to resist the suspicion that for Watkins, the film was also something of a self-portrait – one of Munch’s own favoured forms – showing the struggles of a committed artist against the conservative system that rejects him.

Just as history tended to repeat itself within Munch’s life, so too this biopic resonated with the times in which it was made. For the late nineteenth century Kristiana Bohème, with its assaults on establishment ideologies and its advocacy of ‘free love’, holds a mirror to the revolutionary youth movements of the 1960s; and its eventual disintegration – amidst alcoholism, isolation and criminal actions against its members – recalls the disillusionment of the 1970s (when Watkins made his telefilm). This impression of contemporary relevance is only reinforced by the interviews, in many of which the actors were encouraged to express their own personal views on sex, marriage and equality – views which, rather surprisingly, make good sense in either era.

Munch had to face the ignominy of having his works labelled mere sketches by critics blind to his craft. Few would launch the same charge at Watkins’ portrait, exhaustive in its details but never exhausting to watch. Ingmar Bergman once described Edvard Munch as “a work of genius”; certainly it is hard to imagine this multi-faceted life study being bettered.

In a nutshell: Peter Watkins’ most experimental work is also his most accessible, painting a complex but compelling portrait of an artist ill at ease with himself and his times.

© Anton Bitel