(written as a review and part of a podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
Leaf through any book of Edvard Munch’s work and one of the first things you notice are the eyes; eyes staring out of you from the paintings on nearly every page. Eyes that challenge you – as in the painting of the bohemian writer Hans Jaeger, eyes of startled, shameful fury, as in Puberty, eyes of terrifying, spectral blankness – Spring Evening on Karl Johan, tired, hooded eyes – Death in the Sick Room (1892) and eyes that are quietly demented by possessiveness, as in Jealousy (1895).
Eyes are one of the most immediately striking features of Peter Watkins’ film too in that the actors playing the characters break the accepted contract whereby we remain as passive spectators of a film and involve us in their actions. Indeed the very first shot we see is Munch looking straight at us as he dresses. It is a jarring moment, and to begin with it is a disconcerting experience, being included in the characters’ world. When, about 15 minutes in, Watkins says in his narration that in most of Munch’s family studies, faces are turned to the side, turned away, refusing human contact, it is then that all those eyes, looking at us self-consciously, hesitantly, nervously, come flooding in, in a kind of plea for recognition and understanding.
Without fuss or extended introductions, the film thoroughly immerses us in the world of Kristiania, later Oslo, in the late 19th century. Munch is dressing as the servant girl makes his bed. She leans over the back of his neck – in a pose that will recur many times through the film in a reference to his painting The Vampire – and whispers that he may come to her after dinner. Munch’s mother is shown coughing up blood (she died of TB when Munch was five) and a family talks about typical working conditions in the city – all within the first minute of the film! This is energising, thrilling filmmaking in which you can be immersed in Munch’s story and environment at the same time as admiring the skill and depth of knowledge with which it has been brought to the screen.
Aside from the direct acceptance and recognition of camera and audience, there are other particularities that give the film its character. There is no way I can fully communicate its subtlety of conception in this short review, but here are just a few guides. Firstly, the cast of the film is entirely made up of amateur actors, for the most part Norwegians participating in helping to recreate the story of one of their country’s great artists. In interviews to the camera they bring their own experiences to bear on the characters they portray. Indeed, the end credits read, ‘directed and edited by Peter Watkins, and written in collaboration with the cast, many of whom express their own opinions.’
Secondly, social background is foregrounded by characters talking of conditions for the different classes prevalant in Kristiania at the time. The prevailing orthodoxy of morals is given to Mrs Heiberg’s husband. ‘A woman is and ought to be a defenceless and beautiful little being, both in body and soul, who needs the protection and security of a man,’ says he. The enigmatic Mrs Heiberg, Munch’s sometime lover and object of his jealous, possessive affection, a character whom Watkins brought to life from the pages of Munch’s diary, simply stares at us while he pontificates.
Watkins also uses a voiceover commentary that gives the notable events for a particular year. For example, ‘The year 1885. General Gordon dies at Khartoum; Serbia invades Bulgaria, the British annexe Bechuanaland, Karl Marx writes volume 2 of Das Kapital, and the future General Patton, and DH Lawrence are born.’ In outlining the events of the passing years, and especially the rise in German militarism and the inventions of weapons, a shadow of world war is cast across the film. Munch’s art was of course declared by the Nazis in 1937 to be ‘degenerate’, eighty-two of his paintings were confiscated by the state and sold off. It is the last in the long line of abuse and incomprehension that greeted his work through his career.
Thirdly, in recognition that a life’s experiences can surface, break and flood through us at any time in our lives, the film is non-linear in its telling. In this, Watkins took his cue from Munch’s diaries (indeed, most of Munch’s words in the film and much of the narration comes directly from these diaries). Watkins makes the point that Munch’s writing used little punctuation apart from a dash, so that in whole blocks of text, as he ranges around his thoughts and experiences from different times of his life, he does not separate these experiences.
So, for example, the scene in which Edvard hesitates before knocking on the servant girl’s room one night, then turns, looks at us and walks back to his room, comes in the middle of scenes in a tavern, scenes of his childhood and of painting. Thus the themes of sex, guilt, shame and embarrassment – both at his puritan background which is mocked by his compatriots and his own ineffectuality – and the sublimation of his confused desire into painting, are fused together.
At one point we see a close up of Munch’s incredible canvas The Sick Child, with its heavily scored, scratched and overpainted surface. In its use of image and sounds, especially sounds, which leech, bleed and score into and through each other, disrupting the parcels of discrete neatness so often packaged up for our entertainment, the film is a little like this canvas.
The look of the film is dictated almost entirely by its substance. A knowledge of Munch’s paintings provokes more admiration for the film as it reveals how thoroughly steeped in Munch’s life and art it is. Atmospheres are created that recall the ambiance in certain of his canvases. The grainy blue cast to the light in the room above the café in Saint-Cloud resembles Munch’s painting Night in Saint-Cloud for example. Other scenes are shown, such as Girls on a Bridge, which would later be turned into paintings. At other times, relationships are more subtle. At one point Munch is shown talking with Mrs Heiberg in front of a window, their positioning recalling the window that Munch blacked out in his painting The Sick Child, and the window also features in his painting of Spring. These are the resonances that run throughout.
At the heart of Munch’s art was his complex relationship with women. Watkins talks of the temptress, the virgin and the mother for whom Munch had revulsion and longing, respect and compassion respectively. He says, ‘the complexity of Munch’s suffering, of his art, is that each of these three images for him are one and the same woman.’ In the film, Munch’s painting, entitled The Vampire by a friend, and which shows a woman kissing a man on his neck, is referenced time and again, even once with Munch taking the woman’s role.
As the painter Oscar Kokoschka said, ‘it was given to Edvard Munch’s deeply probing mind to diagnose panic and dread in what was apparently social progress.’ For many, Munch’s most famous painting is The Scream, or The Shriek as it is referred to here. Some of the most beautiful scenes, which are also some of the most disquieting, are those which capture on film something of that ‘great endless scream through nature’, the effect of rippling, quivering, pervasive light that seems to have become another element entirely.
When we are shown 13 year-old Edvard’s near death from a pulmonary haemmorrhage in 1875 as he coughs up blood onto his bed quilt and into a proffered cloth – an image that recurs through the film – there is one small notable feature. The shot circles away from the bed to the lighted candles of the christmas tree, where the candles are bright red, and even they in their small way, shriek back their echo of the colour of Munch’s blood.
There are no rousing scenes of creative artistic triumph here. Munch is shown more often in bars and music halls than he is alone in front of the easel, and even there he spends much of his time scratching out and erasing previous marks that he has made. Haggard, red-eyed exhaustion is the reward for finishing a painting, which is then savaged by the self-proclaimed arbiters of reactionary good taste in Kristiania’s critical establishment. ‘Painted by one almost mentally deranged’, says one; ‘the hallucinations of a sick mind,’ says another. ‘Abroad people will wonder what sort of morals we have,’ says yet another.
This is a collaborative film that also benefits from Watkins’ individual approach. He talks for example of his use of ‘floaters’ in the film; scenes such as Munch’s memories that Watkins kept on a shelf behind him when he was editing the film. On impulse, according to the scenes he was working on, he would reach for one of these memories, and without selection, insert it in the film.
This is no more than a thumbnail sketch of a complex and deeply rewarding film. I look through my scrawled notes and see there are whole areas of its conception and how the film relates to Watkins’ work as a whole that I haven’t even touched. I recommend a visit to Peter Watkins’ own website. He has said that Edvard Munch was his most personal film and there you can read just why this is so.
Lastly, do watch right to the very end, past the final credits.