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The lonely ones
Peter Watkins' compelling film study of the life and struggles of the brilliant Norwegian painter EDVARD MUNCH, whose work helped give birth to the Expressionist movement, gets a Blu-ray upgrade from Eureka as part of the Masters of Cinema series.
 

Note: The review below has been updated from our coverage of the 2007 Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD release of the film.

 

Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is one of those artists that few people who have not taken a specific interest in art history tend to have heard of, but whose work just about everyone knows, or at least one specific piece of it. We're talking, of course, about The Scream, an iconic work (as it happens, Munch created four variations of the image in paint and pastels under the title The Scream of Nature) in which the anxiety of a screaming woman spills out into the distorted landscape that surrounds her. It's a painting that's found its way into the public consciousness through its absorption into popular culture and continues to do so – the woman's face became the instantly recognisable Halloween mask in Wes Craven's 1996 Scream, while the painting and even its subject have both made memorable appearances in episodes of The Simpsons.

The fame of this image alone might suggest that its creator was a successful and wealthy man, but in the all too familiar manner of artists who broke new ground in years past, nothing could be further from the truth. Munch painted and Munch exhibited and the public and critics all hated what they saw, and I'm not talking once but every time he tried, over a period of many years and thousands of paintings, prints and drawings. When most would have given up, Munch just kept on developing his art in his own non-conformist style, and yet every time he publicly showed his work it was slated, often prompting disproportionately extreme reactions. In Berlin an exhibition of his work was forcibly closed just days after it opened, so outraged was the establishment by his "anarchistic smears." So what was the horrible crime against art that Munch's paintings were committing that so offended the eye of so many beholders? Well, it was quite simple really – it was new. Munch had chosen to reject established naturalism in favour of a style that reflected not just what he saw, but how he reacted to it on an emotional and psychological level. This approach was later to attract a number of practitioners and eventually find itself a name: Expressionism.

Edvard Munch self-portrait

My own relationship with Munch's work goes back a fair few years, and The Scream wasn't the first of his paintings that I was exposed to. Arriving at his work through art history classes, my introduction to the artist was his 1894 The Vampire and the 1899 The Dance of Life, both of which I adored. He was the first artist – and Expressionism the first art movement – that I bought books about – the work of Munch and the Expressionist artists that followed made immediate sense to me, both as art and a personal reading of reality. I was also soon to realise that this approach translated beautifully to film, something 1920s German cinema in particular was quick to understand and drawn on.

Long before I first saw it, I was well aware of Peter Watkins' biographical film on Munch but had never managed to track it down, despite the considerable praise it attracted over the years. A cynical part of me couldn't help suspecting that the film's unavailability was stoking the level of this acclaim, a strain of critical snobbery that thrives on seeing something that you probably never will. That said, I've yet to see a Peter Watkins film that hasn't left me reeling – Culloden, The War Game and Punishment Park are all high up on my list of films that everyone should see before they die, and the prospect of seeing one of my favourite painters cinematically profiled by one of my favourite directors was an enticing one.

Those familiar with Watkins' cinematic style will immediately find themselves at home here. This is a drama documentary with the emphasis on the latter – were it not for the period in which the extensive re-enactments were set, you could almost swear Watkins had been there with his camera to record events as they occurred. Family life and social activities are patiently observed, with characters intermittently acknowledging the presence of a camera that will hurriedly reframe or struggle to focus, while many of them are interviewed by an unseen but intermittently audible reporter. This air of reality is enhanced by performances so natural that it's almost detrimental to classify them as performances at all, an affect achieved by casting non-professionals and allowing them to express their own views in their own way (their resulting modern accents and expressions were apparently a target for criticism on the film's initial Norwegian release, which I think is a little picky and somewhat missing the point).

Edvard Munch and the Boheme

The narrative is constructed around readings from Munch's diary, written sometimes in the third person, and a sober BBC-style voice-over (by Watkins himself) that provides detailed information on Munch, his family and his associates, particularly the café revolutionaries who made up the Boheme, a well-intentioned but largely ineffective group whose contempt for established attitudes and religion I nonetheless found endearing. Relationships embarked on by Munch and his compatriots receive particular attention, especially Munch's involvement and post-breakup obsession with the woman he records in his diary as Mrs. Heiberg, the sort of self-destructive hopeless cause that always makes me want to slap some sense into the unfortunate victim. For Munch it proved fateful, tarring his personal life with the same level of disappointment and anguish that public and critical reaction did to his career. If you're looking for a definition of both tortured artist and driven visionary, then Edvard Munch is your man.

If this was the extent of Watkins' reworking of biopic conventions then it's doubtful the film would have attracted the acclaim it has, but these are the foundations on which he builds a far more complex and layered work. Right from the start he establishes a strong socio-political thread, counterpointing the superficiality of the middle-class promenade with an interview with a working-class family, while the narration highlights the grim conditions and prospects for those at the bottom of the social ladder. Dates are contextualised through significant events of the year in question, with a painting by Van Gough or a novel by H.G. Wells always balanced by news of militaristic foreboding, such as the birth of Hitler or the invention of the gatling gun, a direct juxtaposition of the creative and the destructive.

Munch

Just as Munch rejected naturalism for expressionism, Watkins deliberately disrupts drama-documentary conventions with a broken mirror approach to editing, cross-cutting between locations, characters and timeframes to occasionally disorientating but often hypnotic and always purposeful effect. Scenes set in the narrative present are peppered with images of childhood sickness and Munch's failed relationship with Mrs. Heiberg, twin traumas that were to haunt the artist's early years and work, while the underlying linear passage through the most crucial years of his artistic development can switch in an instant from the observational to a detailed analysis of how a particular painting was constructed. The soundtrack is at times similarly complex, particularly during the cross-cut sequences, two of which are dominated by the sound of Munch weeping, a subjective veil of despair that encompasses everyone and everything even indirectly connected to him.

It's fascinating, information-packed viewing and it needs to be – at three-and-a-half hours in length, with only the voice-over delivered in English and a fair amount of (carefully selected) image repetition, the film is almost a gift for rejection by the more intolerant viewer. But if you're serious about cinema and about art, then Edvard Munch is an outstanding must-see, a film that really does redefine the terms by which subsequent and future biographical documentaries should be judged.

sound and vision

Framed in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio – the film originated as a three-part mini-series co-produced by the Norwegian and Swedish state television networks – Edvard Munch was shot on 16mm in sometimes gloomy locations by naturalistic light and is thus not a film whose imagery was designed to pop from the screen. Dark tones and colours dominate both the decor and the costumes, an expressionistic reflection of Munch's uphill struggle for recognition that seems to draw inspiration from the artist's own work. This does intermittently soften the otherwise solid black levels but never in a remotely detrimental way, and when the film does move into exterior daylight the results are very pleasing. The level of picture detail is not 35mm crisp, and while similar to transfer on the 2007 Masters of Cinema DVD release (which looks very much as if it was sourced from the same HD master), the image feels just a few notches sharper and somehow more robust here, something particularly evident on larger screens. Inevitably, the film grain is more visible than on the DVD, but it always feels organic to the material.

Munch

Compare the Linear PCM mono 1.0 soundtrack here to the Dolby 2.0 track on the DVD and a couple of differences are immediately apparent. The first is how much difference running the film at its native 24fps (as opposed to the 25fps PAL transfer on the DVD) makes to Watkins narration, slowing it down and lowering the pitch more noticeably than you'd think a single frame speed change would. The sound level is also louder here than on the DVD and has a bolder feel, and there is also almost no trace of the faint background hiss heard on the DVD.

The film can be watched here in its entirity as a 211-minute single film, or in two separate parts of 112 minutes and 111 minutes each (the seemingly longer running time of these combined parts includes opening titles and closing credits on both). It plays with English subtitles on the Norwegian dialogue by default, but can also be played with English SGDH subtitiles or no subtitles at all for those of you fluent in Norwegian.

extra features

There are none on the disc, and given the length of the film and Watkins' own refusal to give third-party interviews, that's hardly surprising. This matters not, thanks to the truly excellent, 80-page Booklet that accompanies the DVD, which contains a wonderfully detailed essay on the film by Joseph A. Gomez, a typically revealing self-interview by Watkins, notes on the restoration by Oliver Groom and a useful timeline of Munch's life. I'd go as far as to suggest that the information packed into this booklet actually surpasses what most commentary tracks could deliver.

summary

When I finally caught up with thjis film after years of increasingly unreasonable expectation-building I was ready for a let-down, but Edvard Munch lived up to them and delivered a rich palette of surprises along the way. As someone who thought he knew a lot about this particular artist I found that I still had a great deal to learn, about Munch himself and particularly about the social and political situation in Norway of the period. Not an easy entertainment by any means, it's still a hell of a film, and further proof, if needed, that Peter Watkins is one of this country's most important and innovative filmmakers, and yet still one of it's most criminally undervalued.

If you don't already have a copy of the film then this Blu-ray release is the one to go for, and fans of Edvard Munch and/or Peter Watkins should consider this an essential purchase. If you have the previous Masters of Cinema DVD then the decision to upgrade will depend on either your love of the film or the size of your screen – the booklet is essentially the same as the one in the DVD release, but while the audio-visual improvements are not substantial, they do make a difference. Highly recommended.

Edvard Munch Blu-ray
Edvard Munch

Sweden / Norway 1974
212 mins
director
Peter Watkins
screenplay
Peter Watkins
cinematograpjy
Odd Geir Sæther
editing
Peter Watkins
production deisgn
Grethe Hejer
starring
Geir Westby
Gro Fraas
Serstii Allum
Eric Allum
Susan Troldmyr
Ragnvald Caspari

DVD details
Region B
video
1.33:1
sound
LPCM 2.0 mono
languages
Norwegian / German / French / English
subtitles
English
English SDH
extras
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
13 June 2016
review posted
13 June 2016

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Punishment Park [Blu-ray review]
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