Backlog #8: Edvard Munch (1974)

This biographic of the Norwegian painter is wonderful. It’s made in Peter Watkins’ characteristic fashion: a docudrama utilising non-professional actors, with a strong socio-political strain. With its three hour running time, it’s a move in Watkins’ development into a more contemplative and measured presentation, allowing more time to explore the film’s themes and contemplate them. It’s a challenge for the viewer: the film’s narrative continuously moves back and forth and sideways in tracing Munch and the worlds of his art, his family and his public. In the right mood, it’s an extremely rewarding challenge serving Watkins’ purpose in presenting his work outside of mass-media conventions.

Edvard Munch presents the life of the painter as: his childhood and upbringing in an upper-bourgeois family; his adoption of painting and his stylistic and technical innovations; his emotional life, in particular his affair with Mrs Heilberg; the hostile reaction of the public to his work and his subsequent escape to Berlin. Linking these strands of plot and theme is Watkins’ narration, calm and matter-of-fact, which places the events of Munch’s life in context with his biography and that of 19th century Norwegian society; but it also attempts to link the darkening tone of the wider historical events in western society with the art of Munch.

Life in late 19th century Christiana is discussed with frequent digressive inserts documenting the formalities, hypocrisies and privations it contained. Watkins uses, as in his previous work, close-up interview responses with characters both major and minor, eliciting their (in and out of character) opinions on all of the film’s themes; most notable are the responses from the critics of the Norwegian art world when first confronted by Munch’s paintings.

Munch is independent from this 1st/2nd person presentation, as if to enforce the impression that his turbulent emotional life was expressed by his painting and fulfilled by his obsession with Mrs Heilberg. This is the heart of the film and Geir Westby and Gro Fraas look right and are excellent. Perhaps Watkins attempts to cover too much in the course of the narrative, to the effect that the centrifugal plot of Munch’s crises cannot command the film over its course. Regardless, Edvard Munch is a massive achievement, an exploration of biography, art, social and cultural history and human emotion that stimulates the audiences understanding of the artist’s life and his background and context.

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