Edvard Munch Review

There’s plenty of justification for calling Peter Watkins one of the finest directors Britain ever produced – and one far more highly regarded overseas than in his home country. His earliest films were made for the BBC: Culloden was groundbreaking in its use of documentary techniques to tell a dramatic story, in this case a reconstruction of the last battle on British soil. He used many of the same techniques in The War Game, a brilliantly-made, still harrowing film which shows what might happen if a nuclear strike hit Britain. It was banned by the BBC at the time – its one and only television showing was in 1995 – and in the resulting furore Watkins left the BBC. His work since then has been in the cinema, starting with Privilege in 1967, increasingly wayward, made where he could find funding, often radical in form and little seen.

Edvard Munch may well be Watkins’s masterpiece. It had its origins in a visit to an exhibition of Munch’s paintings in 1968, when Watkins was visiting Oslo. Watkins was struck by the painter’s work – of which The Scream (or The Shriek as it is called here) is by far the best known, but far from his only work. In working on the film, Watkins was given access to Munch’s then-unpublished diaries, which resulted in many facts about Munch’s life appearing in public for the first time in the film. (In particular, Watkins is one of the few Munch biographers in any medium to give due weight to the painter’s affair with a married woman, known in the diaries by the pseudonym “Mrs Hiering”. This figure gives the lie to Munch’s alleged misogyny. He was certainly deeply conflicted about women, both lusting after them and afraid of them, with a pronounced Madonna/whore complex, but calling him a misogynist is far too simplistic.) Edvard Munch was coproduced by Norwegian and Swedish television and broadcast over two nights in its full three-and-a-half hours. A shorter version, just under three hours, was released theatrically.

The film begins in the 1880s, when Munch was in his twenties. Munch was one of the leaders of a movement seeking to paint, not “reality”, but what the painter himself saw, reflecting his inner state. However, the results horrified more conservative people, and throughout his career Munch had to put up with attacks on his work, that it was sick, obscene, the product of a diseased mind, or that of a precocious and undisciplined child. The film ends in 1908, as Munch, suffering a psychiatric breakdown, has himself admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen at the same time as, in his native Norway, he becomes a Knight of the Order of St Olav for his artistic achievement. (Munch died in 1944, a month after his eightieth birthday.)

In Edvard Munch, Watkins refines the techniques he used in earlier films. Much of the dramatic weight is taken by an English-language narrator (Watkins himself) who sets scenes, quotes from Munch’s letters and diaries, introduces characters and also, with each new year, summarises world events. The actors are non-professionals, in many cases cast for their likeness to the real figures they played, and much of their dialogue is from the record. Occasionally Watkins “interviews” certain key figures in Munch’s life. Watkins also avoids many of the clichés of cinematic artists: we see in detail reconstructions of the various media Munch worked in – not just paint, but lithographs, etchings and woodcuts. This may seem distancing at first, but Watkins is not one to draw you in with cheap emotional effects: once you’re accustomed to the film’s style and rhythm it becomes completely absorbing. The cast is brilliantly directed: there’s no obvious “acting” going on here.

Much of Watkins’s work has become hard to see. Following this film his work has become more sporadic, including a fourteen-hour film made for World Peace Year, The Journey in 1987, and more recently, the six-hour La commune (Paris 1871). As such, DVD releases are more than welcome, and Eureka/Masters of Cinema follow their edition of Punishment Park with this.

Edvard Munch is number 51 in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line, and is encoded for all regions. This is the full-length version, and appears to have been declared Exempt from Classification. (It bore an A certificate on its cinema release which was the equivalent of the PG it was given for a 1995 video release. Nowadays, given some nudity and sexual references it may be more 12 material, not that it’s likely to be of much interest to anyone under that age.)

The theatrical release was cropped to 1.66:1 but this television version is in the full original Academy Ratio. Edvard Munch shot in 16mm, mostly handheld – a tripod was only used when shooting the paintings. Inevitably the results are soft and grainy by today’s standards, but this is what the film would have looked back in 1974. It’s worth noting that the film was made to be watched on television sets which were far smaller and much more forgiving than they are today. The transfer was approved by Watkins, and I can’t fault it.

Although the soundtrack was and is monophonic – as television and the cinema both were in 1974 – it is still a complex, layered track, featuring dialogue (mostly in Norwegian), narration (in English), music and effects, all well balanced and quite audible. There are three subtitle options: the default is subtitles for the dialogue only, but there are also hard-of-hearing subtitles which include the narration as well. You can switch the subtitles off if your Norwegian is up to scratch.

There are no extras on the disc itself, but Eureka have provided a substantial one in the form of a 112-page booklet. After a cast-and-crew listing, the booklet features a long essay, “Edvard Munch: Film Biography as Self-Portrait and Exemplum” by Joseph A. Gomez, the author of a book on Watkins. Gomez contributed to Eureka’s DVD of Punishment Park and his essay here is learned and fascinating. It’s followed by a self-interview/statement by Watkins (who does not give interviews any more), a timeline of Munch’s life and DVD credits.

Edvard Munch| arrives with the reputation of being one of the best film biographies of an artist ever made, and to me (who had not seen it before) it lives up to it in this exemplary edition.

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