Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.
Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch is not a documentary, but it is one of the greatest, most singular works of cinematic nonfiction ever made. With the recent emergence of the so-called “hybrid” documentary, it is important to remember that there have been innovative films made in this mode since the dawn of cinema. In many ways, Edvard Munch is so original that it has been the father of few children. But anyone with even a passing interest in the evolution of the nonfiction form should see it and try to understand its magic. It is with great exuberance that I nominate Edvard Munch, my favorite film of all time, into our new nonfiction canon.
This is a period piece/political essay/portrait of an artist/work of expressive cinema at the highest level. The style Watkins invents for this film is almost indescribable, but let me take a shot. Composed of images that directly evoke the Norwegian painter’s great work (yet retain a rough-and-ready, documentary aesthetic), Edvard Munch tells the biographical story of the artist, focusing on the psychological aspects of his work and life. Bitter family losses, tragic love affairs, dalliances with the political and artistic bohemians and revolutionaries of late-19th century Christiania all intermingle in Watkins’ freeform montage.
Meanwhile, the director provides BBC-style voice over that clinically reads the fragile thoughts of Munch himself and provides historical context to the intimate, deeply personal narrative. The effect of the director’s voice is to create emotion by way of withdrawal from emotion and to transform this art film into a work that mingles with Watkins’ other chimeric fiction/nonfiction experiments, such as The War Game (which won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary, even though it is made entirely of reenactments).
Another prominent nonfiction element of the film is that it features many Norwegian non-actors speaking directly to the camera about their real emotional experiences as working-class people. Dressed in 1880s-era costumes, these interview subjects (who are often seen in the backgrounds of scenes) are performing themselves, creating expressive art from reality, which mimics the goals of the artist himself. Images are repeated and sounds from scenes continue into the next scene, profoundly conjuring the hazy, alienated state of Munch’s mind.
The entire thing also plays as autobiography, because like the painter, Watkins is a sensitive, radically inventive poet of images who was misunderstood and cast out from mainstream culture. His masterpiece should be studied and admired, plucked for ideas and adored. I watch it once a year and love it every time. Join me, won’t you?