Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1905
My girlfriend said hey, I got this Edvard Munch movie from Netflix, want to watch it? Why not, I said, I could use a nap.
Wrong again. Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch is fantastic. Presented as a late 19th century documentary, it progresses by means of hallucinatory flashbacks of blood coughed upon sheets, lovers kissing, the death of Munch’s mother, the death of his sister, palette knives and brushes scraping on canvas, the prating of citizens and critics, the misogynistic ranting of Jaeger and Strindberg, betrayal, abandonment, success, and still more blood.
Throughout, Munch himself hardly speaks, although he is there in almost every scene, observing, anxious, jealous, bitter, and stoic. Through rejection, mockery, and death, he paints. But unlike almost the entire Post-Impressionist world, he paints what he feels, not what he sees. A revolution, scorned and excoriated, as profound as any before or since.
Like a painting on canvas, the film itself grows by accretion, layer upon layer of sounds and images, sometimes unrelated, until meaning emerges, until some kind of understanding is achieved. Munch himself often displaced time - in pictures of the death of his sister, for example, family members are depicted as their age at the time he painted them, rather than at the time of her death, 15 or more years before - and so does the film, circling and circling. And just as Munch’s figures often look directly into the eyes of the observer, so sometimes do Watkins’ actors, an eerie engagement with the camera intended, he has said, to break down the psychological barrier between film and viewer.
Watkins, whose films include The War Game and Culloden, is best known as a political filmmaker, and Munch is in many ways a political movie. Oskar Kokoschka once said that it was given to Munch “to diagnose panic and dread in what was apparently social progress.” Watkins shows that the progress may have been illusory but the panic and dread were not.