March 6, 2013

Sick man of Europe

Nearly 40 years after it was made, Peter Watkins’ masterpiece Edvard Munch (1976) still looks like a radical and ingenious way of making not just a film about an artist but period films generally. Like other Watkins films, this was made in the style of a documentary (narration, amateur actors and news-style shooting, pieces to camera and even an interview) and the historical context and Watkins’ research are all on the surface and easy to grasp. History can never appear unmediated and the viewer of Edvard Munch is constantly aware that this is an impossible document. If, more than 100 years into cinema history, the majority of period films are still presented as filmed plays, this suggests that another way is possible (although much less radical, Andrea Arnold’s recent Wuthering Heights may have been influenced by this and by Watkins generally). It also means that the great-actor-impersonating-a-great-man style that plagues biopics is absent: the man playing Munch (Geir Westby) barely speaks and he never appeared in another film. At times his Munch disappears into crowds. At best he is a product of his times: Watkins opens Edvard Munch by contrasting the complacent, rule-bound, Christian middle-class of 19th century Norway with the realities of the system that supported it, including diseases of poverty and overcrowding and still legal child labour. The anti-Christian anarchists, Satanists and bohemians that Munch associates with and is influenced by – August Strindberg, most famously – are therefore a historical force and as much as weight is given to one commentator’s idea that Munch “diagnosed panic and dread in what was apparently social progress” as it is to the view that his art was introverted, highly personal and subjective, and as motivated by the supernaturally-informed misogyny of Strindberg and co: a repeated filmed image of “Mrs Heiberg” kissing Munch’s neck becomes Vampire thanks to the intervention of Stanislaw Przybyszewski. The idea expressed by editing, as it imitates compulsive memory, is that the affair with “Mrs Heiberg” haunted and obsessed, ruined and inspired Munch, and that tells you that one of the other great achievements of Edvard Munch is as a film about the artistic process. And not just in the sense of where Munch got his ideas from, but how those ideas were executed. I can’t think of many films that have got the art process better, or have caught the oppressive feeling of an art scandal so well, as the establishment critics and art names close ranks. There may well be some of Watkins’ own experience in that. On his website, he explains his issues with Norwegian broadcaster NRK, who co-funded the film with Swedish television.