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Edvard Munch
cast: Geir Westby, Gro Fraas, Kåre Stromark, and Alf Kåre Strindberg

director: Peter Watkins

221 minutes (PG) 1974
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Peter Watkins had received a mauling from the establishment (and what few critics who managed to see it) in Britain for his documentary style feature The War Game. The suppression of his work would set him on a peripatetic career, and it is little wonder that he became fascinated with Edvard Munch (here played by Geir Westby) while working in Norway. He could see many parallels between himself and the artist. Ironically, his biography of Munch would also end up being maltreated and suppressed.

One can easily see why. Originally made for television, this lengthy and static work moves at a geological pace, and it is easy to forget how strange it must look at the time. These days, the language of this film (handheld camera work, present-tense voiceover and direct-to-camera addresses) has become so familiar it is almost invisible to the viewer. This is due to the recent flood of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but make no mistake - Watkins towers high above that class of electronic wallpaper. He shot 50 hours of film, and edited it down to the three hours plus that we are presented with here. Later he would re-cut it and shorten it further to produce a cinematic version that was a 'mere' 174 minutes long.

There are several things that make Edvard Munch shine. The editing is superb. The sounds of various scenes bleed into others, creating a cohesive unity which enables the frequent use of flashbacks to formative and harrowing scenes from earlier in the film to stand as statements on the nature of Munch's mind. Much of the credit for the film's success must also be given to the camerawork of Odd Geir Sæther, a stunningly talented and intuitive technician. Then there is the cast. The 200-odd individuals in the film are mostly amateurs with little or no acting experience. They were cast mostly for their resemblance to the characters that they were to play. This means, of course, that they are recognisable from their paintings. Many of the cast were encouraged to ad-lib their dialogue, which caused some criticism at the time as they frequently used contemporary colloquialisms. This is not a problem for non-Norwegian speakers who will be following their dialogue on subtitles (although, curiously, the voiceover is in English). The cast, generally, happen their parts well. A few come across as slightly wooden, especially when addressing the camera, but this actually adds to the feeling of naturalness in most cases. One of the few failures is 'Doctor Heiberg', who gives a particularly unconvincing delivery in an unconvincing beard.

The film concerns itself with the early part of Munch's career. Munch is best known for The Scream, a painting that seems to be stolen on an annual basis from its Norwegian museum. People infer from it that he was a tortured loner who probably died at a young age when, in fact, he lived into his eighties. Tortured he certainly was, but Watkins places him in the centre of the artist communities that he moved in, first in the bohemian set in his native Kristiania, and later in continental Europe. His family disintegrates around him and he has various unsatisfying relationships with women. Watkins has put his affair with the mysterious 'Mrs Heiberg' (Gro Fraas) at the core of the film as Munch turns from frustrated lover to stalker. Curiously, Watkins has chosen to end the film before Munch's affair with the unhinged Tulla Larsen who, in turn, stalked Munch around Europe and was involved in a strange occurrence when Munch's finger was shot off. Absent, too, is Munch's spell in an asylum. He even lived long enough to see the Nazis march into Norway. It is almost as if Watkins were trying to avoid anything that would add drive and tension to the narrative. Having said that, we could easily have ended up with a film of Warholian dimensions if it were to continue any further along Munch's life. The film leaves off just as Munch is starting to become a critical and commercial success, at sometime in the 1890s, and his self-portraits are starting to show the real Munch ageing beyond the uncanny similarity of Geir Westby.

As part of the Masters of Cinema range, this DVD comes with a fine, 80-page paperback that reprints in colour most of the paintings of direct relevance to the film (for those of an artistic bent, the technical side of Munch's work is also well documented in the film). It gives a brief timeline of Munch's life, but for the most part concerns itself with Watkins and the making of the film. There's a Joseph A. Gomez article on the film from 1979 that seems slightly dated on the current critical viewpoint on Munch's artwork, but is otherwise excellent, a 'self interview' with Watkins, and a feature on the trauma involved in this restoration of the film. Apart from the book, there is little in the ways of extras. You are merely given the choice of watching the film with full subtitles or with no subtitles.

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