As someone who works primarily in the documentary form, Peter Watkins probably doesn’t get asked where he gets his ideas. Not that there’s any need to – his 1974 epic Edvard Munch, released on Blu-Ray by Eureka Masters of Cinema, is the story of an intelligent man whose quest to make art that reflected his own vision of the world led to him being denounced and marginalised, before being rediscovered and hailed a genius. It’s not hard to see why Watkins would connect very personally with Munch’s story. In 1965 his BBC film The War Game, a chilling docudrama imagining the effects of a nuclear strike on Britain, had been banned after much controversy within the Corporation and the government. Watkins was also hamstrung when Equity, the actors’ union, took umbrage at his use of non-professional actors in films like The War Game and Culloden. For him, this was the entire purpose of his art: to allow ordinary people to appear on television or cinema screens not as documentary subjects or interviewees, but as creative free agents who would shape the film and in the process discover the connections between Watkins’s historical or science-fictional subject matter and their own lives.
Made as a co-production between Norwegian and Swedish state broadcasters, Edvard Munch uses this method to bring reality and relevance to subject matter that television too frequently walls off as being safe, dry ‘high culture’ broadcasting. Just as Munch hacked and slashed at his canvases with brushes, charcoal and even knives, Watkins attacks the viewer’s complacency with straight-to-camera addresses from historical figures, speaking in modern, colloquial Norwegian about marriage, art and relationships. Are these the opinions of nineteenth-century Bohemians, or people living in the fallout from the 1960s counterculture? They feel perfectly plausible as both, allowing Watkins to draw a clear line between the world Munch lived in and the world his audience inhabited.
More playfully, he recreates the scandalous reaction to Munch’s early exhibitions by getting people who genuinely disliked his work to put on period costume and explain what they found so repellent about it. Time and time again Munch’s painting is classed as the work of a diseased mind, its individualistic, despairing worldview the sort of thing that any civilised society should reject. Munch has, on occasion, been accused of playing up his reputation as a tormented outsider, and it’s true that his work became more dramatic – arguably melodramatic – once he moved to Berlin and met the Symbolist poets, who loved some anguished morbidity. At the same time, he did end up in an asylum in 1908, which isn’t the sort of thing you do to commit to a gimmick, and he had a painful early life which Watkins recreates dispassionately but never callously. One particular image, of his sister dying of consumption, is repeated throughout the film, sometimes at meaningful moments, sometimes coming unbidden, much as the memory must have been inescapable to Munch.
Watkins makes the form of the film an essential part of its meaning. At first, the informational content of the film might seem to lie in the English voiceover (uncredited – might it be the director himself?). But the voiceover is simply a record of historical facts – the editing and the camerawork explain Watkins’s position on his material. After observing that Munch’s portraits usually show faces turned shyly away from the painter, he recreates their compositions and colours but makes his actors stare directly into the camera as they talk. The implication is that whereas the painter shied away from emotional connections in his life, this film will confront his inner life directly, a promise that Watkins’s script – based heavily on Munch’s own diaries – makes good on. Later scenes mimic Munch’s dream-like perspectives on sunsets, forests and seas, and they end up looking like a premonition of the 21st-century semi-narrative cinema practiced by directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ben Rivers, Hou Hsaio-Hsien and Albert Serra.
The best moment comes when, after a brace of interviews lambasting Munch’s work, a critic speaks up for it, saying that Munch’s painting ought to be appreciated from a distance. This comes just a minute or two after Watkins has zoomed so far in on a painting that the screen becomes an abstract display of lines, brushstrokes, shifting colours and deep indentations. Watkins uses his camera to argue that it’s here, not the image as a whole, that Munch’s genius lies. His subject matter was often either traditional or heavily influenced by his Symbolist friends, but his method of expressing these basic ideas was completely original and personal. Likewise, Watkins’s film has the script of a normal, if above average, arts documentary of its era, but in casting, filming and editing it becomes a truly original piece.
It’s worth noting here what version of the film has been made available. Like a lot of the films Watkins made after leaving Britain, Edvard Munch is very long, though the sheer density of information and images makes it impossible to argue he’s not using his run-time to its full advantage. It was broadcast on Norwegian and Swedish television in three parts of around seventy minutes each, then released in the USA as a 170-minute feature film. Masters of Cinema, remarkably, have found an even more complete version, clocking in at 223 minutes and shown in two halves. This is of massive importance, not least because once the film was completed Watkins found Scandinavian television no more respectful towards his ideas than the BBC were. The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) were frequently unresponsive to requests for screenings, often sending the film out in a degraded copy that insulted the cinematography of Odd Geir Saether. At one point, the British National Gallery had to cancel a screening because the copy the NRK had sent was mostly completely black.
Watching this restoration, you notice how delicate and smoky the colours are, how skilfully the film reconstructs the palette of its subject’s paintings, as if to argue that rather than being a lunatic, aberrant talent Munch was the only honest observer of the world around him. Some of the early scenes in the Munch household look less like a conventional period drama and more like The Family, the groundbreaking fly-on-the-wall documentary aired the same year as Edvard Munch. The Family is now remembered as the forerunner of reality television, creating another link between debates of the past and the present. Watkins wanted to show the real world, even if it meant breaking the conventions of dramatic or documentary realism. His fight to be free of genres, formats and cliches is as essential now as it ever was.
- Director-approved high-definition restoration of the long version
- Optional SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- 80-PAGE BOOK with a Peter Watkins self-interview, writing by Joseph Gomez, a Munch timeline, and numerous artworks.