Famously described by Ingmar Bergman as a "work of genius", Peter Watkins' multi-faceted masterpiece is more than just a bio-pic of the iconic Norwegian Expressionist painter. Focusing initially on Munch's formative ye... more »ars in late 19th Century Kristiania (now Oslo), Watkins uses his trademark style to create a vivid picture of the emotional, political and social upheavals that would have such an effect on his art. The young artist (Geir Westby) has an affair with "Mrs Heiberg" (Gro Fraas), a devastating experience that will haunt him for the rest of his life, and his work is viciously attacked by the critics and public alike. He is forced to leave his home country for Berlin, where, along with the notorious Swedish playwright August Strindberg, he becomes part of the cultural storm that is to sweep Europe.« less
"Peter Watkins' "Edvard Munch" is a biopic that has us peek into the culture and time of Munch's Norway. While we experience the tension and fragility of the artist we are given falshbacks and narrative overlays that strip the "documentary" of any feeling of artificiality. I cannot think of any other documentary that functions with such immersive absorption. Munch's art is the depiction of a soul's shadow with no substance to shade that which it illuminates. The Norwegian painter did not want to submerge the outer world in a welter of subjective colors, as in the work of later expressionists like Georges Rouault and Emil Nolde; or to dissolve it (nearly) in a swirling, intensely private vision, like Van Gogh's paintings or to disturbingly illustrate a tenuous self-pity as in the work of Egon Schile. Nor did he want to ring variations on realism in which the inner world is merely hinted at, as Manet did. Like his contemporary and fellow countryman Ibsen, Munch wanted to make inner life as recognizable as physical reality, and outer life as immediately felt as an emotion. He neither uses color to excite emotional states in the viewer, which was the aim of the German expressionists Munch influenced, nor employs color to provoke the eye, which was the goal of the French fauves who cleared the path for the German expressionists. For all their symbolic resonances and personal inflections, Munch's colors describe his subjects through indolence and fatigued disarray, with gossamer-light brush strokes visible on the canvas like embodiments of the afflicted pathos and distilled by the gravitas of a melancholy hopelessness. In Munch, strong feeling both dignifies a person and threatens to destroy his humanity. One of five children and the son of a doctor, his mother 20 years younger than his father, Munch was morbid and offstandish, a waifish dreamer that would not disillusion himself with the revolutionary ascriptions that were in vogue by the Bohemian intelligentsia of his day . He never married and suffered nervous breakdowns throughout his life. His love affairs usually passed through various stages of hysteria into either bleak disappointment or operatic violence. One breakup ended with his fiancee threatening to kill herself with a revolver; Munch tried to get the gun away from her and ended up shooting off part of his middle finger. Like Kierkegaard, or August Strindberg, Munch saw the struggle between men and women as a universal conflict that encapsulated the essence of life. Women in Munch's paintings are often either the highly sexed succubi of fin de siècle, a la Egon Schiele, or free and openly sexual, and somewhat masculine, like Ibsen's Nora in A Doll's House. Watkins' film is searingly felt attempt to come to terms with a remarkable artist and the social and psychological processes at work in his life and painting. Munch is perpetually seeking an artistic form that will allow him to investigate, according to the Watkins film, "a new and revolutionary understanding of the human psyche." Seeing the world as he does in wave-lines, "Munch seeks to make our innermost tremble." Watkins indicates that Munch's psychological self-examination was not merely an individual endeavor, but reflected something significant about the growing self-awareness of a new age. His representation of the relationship between the painter's words and his life-cycle motifs in The Frieze of Life lends insight into the deeply human content of Munch's work, namely his remarkable ability to lift daily life out of deadening routine. Flora Berman in "Edvard Munch's `Modern Life of the Soul,'" contends that "variously representing chemical, physiological, sexual, and pathological identities, the modern soul was a place of resistance and site of regeneration for vanguard intellectuals at the fin de siecle. Spirituality and social aberrancy were not considered antithetical within this culture, nor within Munch's work. The modern soul became a catchphrase in Scandinavia for the breakthrough generation, the writers of the 1880s and 1890s who rejected naturalist description and embraced interior subjective experience as the foundation of literary investigation." Berman maintains that Munch saw mental and physical disintegration as a way of distancing himself from mainstream culture. Munch writes: "My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone. Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back towards the chasm's edge, and there I shall walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness, I would have been like a ship without a rudder." Life and the condition of "living" pressed itself so forcefully on Munch, and he was so driven to communicate it, that he disdained any aesthetic logic whatever, thereby always in dissonance with the rigid sterility of the unimpressed art critics of his days. "When seen as a whole, art derives from a person's desire to communicate with another. All means are equally good," argued the artist. However where the movie excels is in the way Watkins deftly amalgamates the socio-political reality of Munch's Northern Europe with the inner despair that nurses his art. If, as historian Eric Hobsbawm suggests, the high arts in the late nineteenth century "were ill at ease in society," then surely Munch's work must be considered among the most "uneasy". Hobsbawm notes in his masterpiece "The Age of Extremes" that the last two decades of the 19th century witnessed extraordinary changes, combining to create the foundations of modern capitalist society and culture: the growth and unprecedented concentration of industry and finance, the scramble for colonies, remarkable scientific and technological innovation, the appearance of the modern working class and its first great political party, German Social Democracy. And all of this social complexity refracted in various ways, in artistic work, in the writing of history, in the birth of psychoanalysis." This movie exemplifies why we admire and treasure artwork through its allocation of political and social emergence as witnessed by a man's hypersensitive psychological hues. In the main, it can be said that with Edvard Munch, Peter Watkins has worked towards making real the insightful words of Oskar Kokoschka, the Austrian expressionist painter: "It was given to Edvard Munch's deeply probing mind to diagnose panic and dread in what was apparently social progress." And today Munch is a kin to us all. "
DEMANDING BEAUTY DRINKS YOU INTO ITS LIGHT
Donald A. Newlove | Greenwich Village | 02/18/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've seen this twice, the first time in its theatrical showing, maybe twenty years ago, then more recently on video, which as I recall was also in widescreen. So that's six hours with Watkins' demandingly beautiful film. For awhile I later confused Watkins with David Watkins, the fabulous photographer of OUT OF AFRICA, and for all I know these two filmmakers are related. EDVARD MUNCH is a masterpiece of tonalities. This is a movie about light. You are in a Munch work just by the demanding beauty of the light and of Watkins' inspired painterliness with rich Munch-like blues. The smokey blue scenes in Bohemian bars have the same dense sense of lost time recaptured as do scenes of Munch painting in his attics and scoring his pictures violently as the sharp end of his brush digs into fresh paint and almost rips his canvas. When you think of John Huston's MOULIN ROUGE, a dull film with some good moments, particularly when Lautrec's "hand" draws figures on a restaurant table, we remember mostly idle moments in Lautrec's lovelife (and of course the Can-Can dancers). From EDVARD MUNCH we recall far more extraordinary feelings of being lifted out of ourselves and thrust back into the very rooms Munch lived in and the into the Scandanavian light he worked in and into the tortured set of his mind as he shrank figures into hard, strong, symbolic forms. I await the day this film appears digitally (it was never a laser disc, sad to say, or I'd have it already). Since it may not be issued on DVD for eight or ten years, seek the video cassette version. You will watch it more than once. Maybe not in the same year but it will be a respected treasure that you will thank yourself for having sought out. Or rent it first. Maybe you don't really have to own it if it will be on hand for renting. Still, not all that many stores will have it ready to rent, now that it's out of print. And even if the video is not in widescreen, you will be dazzled just by the blue tones filling the monitor."
Watkins would change the world if anyone cared to
Jon C. McNeill | Portland, OR USA | 10/14/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Edvard Munch is the Citizen Kane that nobody saw. From a storytelling point of view, its portrayal of the constant torment that led to Munch's art is oddly enthralling throughout its 3+ hr length. From a filmmaking point of view, Munch is like no other (except, perhaps, Watkins other later work). To my knowledge, no one has so expertly reproduced the personal thoughts and internal feelings of a man on screen as Watkins does in Munch. Sounds, images, narration, recollections--all float in and out of Munch's consciousness and into ours during this captivating biography on the Norwegian artist most famous for "The Shriek."
Perhaps every aspect of this film is avant-garde, from its editing all the way down to its casting (many parts were played by non-professionals), but perhaps no other movie has enveloped me in its universe the way that Munch does. I have always marveled at how little-known Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch is, and I've been so thankful that it found me. You will be too."
Things that Obsess
Charles S. Tashiro | Agoura Hills, CA USA | 10/26/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"EDVARD MUNCH is an ambitious, often heavy-going effort to transcend traditional artist biographies with a cinematic equivalent of the artist's paintings. It fails, but on the way succeeds in so many other ways that the failure almost doesn't matter.In interviews, director Peter Watkins has been explicit about his total identification with Munch, how in the obsessive effort to portray the artist's life on screen, he effectively was revealing his own neuroses and experiences. People might be put off by the results. Watkins gives the film the look of a fictional biography. He then films events as if he were a documentary filmmaker present at the time. So there is a lot of loose, hand-held camera; there are "interviews" with actors (many of whom improvised or wrote their responses) speaking in character; and Watkins himself frequently intrudes with narration that helps us understand both Munch's significance in the history of art and how his times influenced his work. The voice-over also tells us what Munch feels and experiences, much as the narrator of a novel pretends to know what his protagonist is thinking at any given moment. It is this effort to reveal the relationship between the artist's turmoil and his work that motivates the kaleidoscopic editing style, jumping from one event in the "present," to one in the past, sideways to another, back to something else we've already seen, then out again. Sometimes these edits are built on visual associations; often Watkins relies on the soundtrack to glue them together. It is here that the film's ambitions start to unravel. Other filmmakers who have used such technique (Eisenstein, Resnais, Godard and Roeg, for example) let their cuts ebb and flow over time. Watkins simply cuts, constantly, repeatedly, without much variation in speed or rhythm. Either through a lack of confidence or talent, the images fail to compel on their own, to persuade that there is any relationship between shots not forced by the editor's heavy hand. After nearly three hours, the barrage is exhausting. But also exhaustive. Most artist biographies on film are an embarrassment. EDVARD MUNCH is one of the very few to give us a sense of both the man and his work. You do not have to be particularly interested in Munch to find the film's experiments fascinating, even in their failure. Just be prepared to get up to stretch every once in a while."
This is an amazing film.
Dave Dave Dave | Midwest | 01/20/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"An experimental biography teeming with life. Up there with Andrei Rublev.