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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Biography > Art > History > Political > Edvard Munch (1976)

Edvard Munch (1976)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C/B     Telefilm: B



NOTE: This title has been issued in an upgraded edition that you can read more about at this link:





As each DVD of Peter Watkins work is released, two things are clear.  He is one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th Century with work so challenging, intelligent and innovative that he is also the most censored in a way even worse than Michael Powell after Peeping Tom and Michael Cimino after Heaven’s Gate.  By the mid-1970s, Watkins teamed up with a Norwegian TV network to do a long biopic of one of their greatest artists and the result is the impressive epic Edvard Munch from 1976.


With a very large cast of unknowns, Watkins has several things going on at once to combat what he sees as the oversimplistic mediaization tactic of “Monoform” which reduces the audience to idiots to have the same reaction over and over again, which leads to a systematic (Communist, Fascist, etc.) animal control of people through media.  It also purposely ignores the possibilities of how far you can go with an audience, but when you are there to take their money and leave them with nothing, why bother?  Watkins does bother.  The film here continues his documentary-like approach with a camera that has its hand-held moments, over use of zooming where needed; voiceover that in this case offers a far more wide-ranging context to history than usual and blunt showing of the times & lives in a way that shows that history always affects us.


Without oversimplifying, Watkins concludes that Munch’s work is so significant because of the unusually privileged view of life and the world because of the large family he had, the intellectuals he was meeting, the socio-economic classes he could see distinctly, the technology not available to him and the distinctive conclusions about where all this was going informed his paints to the pint that they are classics and still ahead of their time.  As a matter of fact, that his most famous canvas The Scream has become a fashion statement comes from the fear by larger media interests of anyone figuring out what it really means, since feeling anything is subversive in these days of mass media control, real or imagined.


To prove his points, Watkins takes the long road and it bears fruit the way Heaven’s Gate does, though the other obvious film to consider around the same time is Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon from a year before.  All three take the typical Hollywood epic structure and personalize them in a way the audience has difficulty finding entry into at first.  Yet, they are all classics that succeed in making the big statements they are making for the most part.  They all share issues concerned with individualism in the face of powerful forces trying to hold people down, of the promise of a better world being spoiled and ruined by man’s inhumanity to man with the incredible ignorance that takes.  In the interview booklet included with the DVD, Watkins states that the modern equivalent of those forces are afraid people will think for themselves again and not be vegetables.  That “they often disparage the audience, claiming that people are not interested in large or complex themes, that they are bored by them.  This is an outrageously elitist and arrogant accusation…” and he is so right.


By going the long way, Watkins has created one of the greatest artist portraits of all time, breaking far past Hollywood biopic limits and breaks the myth that long films have to be boring.  It is amazing how compelling this work is in that the more you watch it, the more you want to continue to watch.  One possibly unintended item is every time the narrator says Kristiania, the place Munch (played effectively here by Geir Westby) grew up, it sounds and feels more like Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984.  Add the times his works are attacked and people are persecuted to the point they go to jail and it may not be such a coincidence or maybe it is just the miserable side of controlled civilizations are so darkly predictable.  This film is not, loaded with all kinds of intriguing ideas and loaded with a living record of an ever-important artist.  Audiences are not “immature” as Watkins points out the media establishment always seems to like to treat their audience, which in part tries to ignore and undermine mortality and sexuality.  The use of hijacked religion to these ends is particularly of interest.


This is why ironically Hollywood is in trouble, with so much other media competing with them like never before as they see eroding demographics, audiences, franchise films that shockingly underperform and other problems too numerous to go into here, he is being vindicated by these troubles.  Without implying anything about ego or fantasy identification, there is no doubt Watkins and Munch have some common denominators, which is the only way his film could have been as amazing as it is.  He can see two histories repeating, one of which is successful art and an ugly oppression, marginalization and trivialization of that art.  New Yorker and Project X are doing a fantastic job of reissuing and reviving Watkins in a way that gives them the best chance of being seen and appreciated again.


The 1.33 X 1 image is a bit grainy and soft, as shot on 16mm film by Odd Geir Saether, from a new digital High Definition transfer of a brand new 16mm interpositive.  This looks good considering how Saether and Watkins purposely picked this look, but it can become difficult to sit through for a 174 minutes-long work.  However, shooting and color are consistent.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is second generation because the best soundtracks were destroyed (by NRK, who also destroyed al the original dubbing machines as well as first-generation materials in what Watkins called “uncommon”) for what are apparently political reasons, so Watkins had to reconstruct the soundtrack with 16mm magnetic mono tracks that were not always in the best shape.  Like the optical work on the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window, it is a painstaking reconstruction that pays off, but is not up to what it would have sounded like if the film arts were more respected.  This situation has not changed enough since then, and in some ways has become worse.  Watkins approved the final result here, which should be interesting to see in digital HD and new film prints when available for viewing.


Extras are unusual for this release, because while the DVD itself is limited, the case contains a remarkable booklet with a Watkins self-interview that is nothing short of amazing.  While the DVD has a Watkins filmography, the booklet is 24-pages long on high quality paper with dense text print and some solid stills here and there.  It is a must-read as much as this amazing film is a must-see.  The Freethinker is the next Watkins DVD, but be sure to also see War Game/Culloden, The Gladiators and Punishment Park elsewhere on this site.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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