I reviewed “Edvard Munch” when it was released on DVD by New Yorker and Project X in early 2006. I felt I had discovered a lost masterpiece, though in truth Peter Watkins’ magnum opus was hardly unknown at the time of my “discovery.” It did, however, languish in relative obscurity for years until New Yorker and Project X revealed (re-revealed?) the film to a whole new audience with the DVD release.
Now, New Yorker and Project X have released a 2-disc special edition of “Edvard Munch” with 46 additional minutes of footage restored to the film, making the complete version available on home video for the first time in North America. Below you can read my (slightly revised) original review of the film. In the Extras and Film Value sections below, I will discuss the Special Edition’s unique qualities in further detail.
A distant cliff with thick ridges running vertically down its face looms large in front of us; rough, shadowy indentations pockmark the surface of this rocky landscape. A rocky landscape, you say? No. Rather, this shot is a close-up of a canvas on which Edvard Munch has been building layer upon layer of paint. It is the culmination of a startling series of shots in which the increasingly frenetic artist paints, scrapes away, re-paints, and nearly bores a hole into the canvas as he constantly revises his work. I cannot recall an instance in which the tactile elements of a painting have ever been captured so vividly on film: the sound of a knife flensing away paint, the actual texture of the paint layered on a canvas. Then again I have never seen a film quite like Peter Watkins’ brilliant “Edvard Munch” (1973).
The film primarily covers a ten year period from 1884-1894 (Munch from age 21 to 31) though it often returns to Munch’s tragedy-scarred childhood. Nineteenth century Christiania (today known as Oslo) was a city plagued by disease, both of the consumptive and venereal kind, and the Munch family, though not poor, was not spared its blight. Edvard’s mother, brother and his beloved sister Sophie died when he was still a child, and these crippling losses haunted him the rest of his life.
In 1884 the young Munch (played by Geir Westby who, like the rest of the cast, is a non-professional actor) belongs to a Bohemian intellectual circle spearheaded by Hans Jaeger (Kåre Stormark). Jaeger’s radical philosophy (a sloppy mix of nihilism and anarchy) influenced Munch greatly, though Watkins contends that another relationship, his long-running, tempestuous affair with the mysterious Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas), was even more important in shaping the painter’s life. The story progresses through Munch’s formative years as an artist and details his battles with his own inner demons as well as demons of a very external kind: the art critics of his time.
As in his other films, Watkins employs pseudo-documentary techniques to recreate historical events, but “Edvard Munch” does not blur the lines between documentary and fiction so much as it renders the distinction altogether meaningless. Watkins narrates in a dry, formal voice that provides historical and political context, and all of Munch’s dialogue is taken directly from his diaries. Yet Watkins hardly restricts his film to a “just the facts” approach. Indeed, “Edvard Munch” is one of the most wildly innovative films I have ever seen, every bit as radical as the most avant of the avant-garde.
The film leaps back and forth through time, frequently flashing back to Munch’s childhood. The elliptical editing conveys Munch’s emotional state rather than simply connecting a series of events in typical biopic style. As Munch scratches frantically at his canvas, we return to the moment when his sister Sophie was dying of tuberculosis. Sometimes characters speak directly to the camera, either speaking on their own or answering the questions of an off-screen female voice. Where this voice comes from I have no idea, but it hardly matters. The actors sometimes improvised their lines, responding to questions with their own opinions rather than from Watkins’ script. Watkins used improvisation by non-professional actors to mixed effect in “Punishment Park” (1970), but in this film the strategy works to perfection.
All of these creative tools (discontinuous editing, characters looking at the camera, etc.) have been used in other films but the remarkable thing about “Edvard Munch” is that none of them function solely as Brechtian devices. Though the film has reflexive elements, it is not overtly self-conscious in the way that Godard’s films of the 60s or many of today’s post-modern films are. Rather, this hodge-podge of stylistic choices creates the eerie sense that we are peering in on past events as they are happening; the movie has an immediacy and physicality that lend it extraordinary power. Watkins has created a unique cinematic point of view that I can only describe as a free-associative semi-omniscient perspective which leaves open all possibilities at any point in time. Any shot that best conveys even the most subtle nuance is fair game. In art, there are no rules save those meant to be broken.
No subject is off-limits either. Though the film is about Edvard Munch, sometimes the story expands to depict life in Christiania, where the bourgeoisie thrived but the working class suffered from wretched labor conditions as well as rampant disease. Watkins has always been a politically engaged director and he lavishes attention on the world around Munch in order to avoid the romantic depiction of the artist as a solitary genius. Munch was shaped not just by mentors such as Hans Jaeger and, later, August Strindberg, but also by the conditions in which he was raised; his melancholia was not just artistic self-indulgence, but the logical response of a sensitive intellect to the squalor and inequity he witnessed every day (some scholars have also suggested that Munch suffered from bipolar disorder, an issue not addressed in the film).
Watkins clearly identifies with Munch. Munch had a restless mind and his style changed frequently, moving from impressionism to naturalism to expressionism and most points between; he also experimented with multiple media including lithography and woodcutting. His paintings were aggressive and shocking; agitated viewers didn’t know quite what to make of them. All of this alienated the staid art critics who derided Munch’s work, forcing him to move from to Paris and then later to Berlin, though he wouldn’t find acceptance anywhere until much later in his career. Similarly, Watkins describes himself as a marginalized director whose politically charged films have been suppressed by the media who prefer safer, more easily categorizable films. No doubt Watkins derives great pleasure by depicting Munch’s critics as preening dullards who treat any deviation from the norm as evidence of either incompetence or dementia.
Watkins matches Munch’s relentless experimentation with his own free-form innovations in this mesmerizing film. Though it is difficult to describe exactly how this movie looks, sounds and feels, I can easily describe its effect on me. I was riveted from start to finish, and found myself consistently surprised at every turn. “Edvard Munch” creates its own cinematic language and there is no way to anticipate which shot will follow from the previous one. What could have been a dry, predictable biopic is instead a dazzling panorama of not just a life but a world of ideas and emotions. It is also a deeply moving film that accumulates power with each scene. By the end I found myself in tears, not from sorrow, but rather because I felt overwhelmed by the blunt force of the film.
“Edvard Munch” is the best film about an artist and the artistic process that I have ever seen. Unlike most art films, it does not manufacture any cheap epiphanies when the artist is miraculously inspired by happenstance (Jackson Pollack watches a toppled paint can drip onto the floor and, in one quick cut, he is a genius!) Instead, we see that Munch achieved his most significant breakthroughs by three primary methods: work, work, and more work (much the same way Watkins made this movie). The film is every bit as much about the joy Munch took in the process of creation as it is about the anguish he suffered, and it produces an intoxicating viewing experience.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “Edvard Munch” was originally shot on 16 mm film and was digitally remastered to high definition digital video for this DVD release. As a result, the picture is very grainy but this is unavoidable. The transfer is interlaced, so you will see some combing. The image quality is a bit muddy, but that doesn’t detract in the slightest from the beauty of this film. I didn’t notice any difference in quality between the transfer from the 2006 DVD and this transfer with the additional 46 minutes of footage.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English and French subtitles support the audio which is predominantly in Norwegian though parts are in German and Watkins’ narration (not subtitled) is in English.
Now we get to talk about the good and the bad of this special edition.
THE GOOD: The extra 46 minutes. Let me be frank. I watched the first 174 minute version of “Edvard Munch” more than a year and a half ago, and did not have the chance to re-watch it before writing this review. I don’t have a list of which scenes are new, which ones have been expanded, and so on. I can tell you, however, that this full version is every bit as stunning as the shorter cut, and does not lag for even one second. The film is so seamless, it’s hard to believe even a minute of this new version could be cut even though I was already awestruck by the shorter cut. I would happily sit and watch a 440 minute cut of “Edvard Munch” if it was available. The film really is that special.
Also on the good side of the ledger (though less so) are three short films about Edvard Munch: “Moments in the Life of Edvard Munch” (11 min, 1957), “From Ekely, the City and the Artists” (12 min, 1953), and “The Munch Museum in Oslo” (10 min, 1963). “Moments” and “Museum” are just short informational films that don’t add much to the experience of the film. “Ekely” is the best-made of the three, and provides a romanticized portrait of the artists’ community in the suburbs of Oslo. It was filmed only seven years after Munch’s death, and before the construction of the Munch museum.
A fourth short feature (6 min.) cuts together some of Munch’s own silent film recordings. They were shot on a 9.5 mm. Baby-Pathé and are basically just blurry recordings around the city. They are of interest only because they were recorded by Munch.
THE (NOT SO) BAD: The 220 minute film is broken up over 2 discs, 110 minutes on each disk. In fact, all of the extras are on Disc 1: Disc Two only includes the second half of the film. I suppose it’s not a big deal. A 220 minute film would likely be shown in a theater with an intermission, and not many home viewers are going to watch the whole movie without a bathroom break or two. Still, I’d vastly prefer to see the movie on a single disc.
A 56-page insert booklet more than doubles the 24-page booklet from the 2006 DVD release. The booklet includes the same self-interview by Watkins, but now also features a full chapter from Joseph Gomez’s book “Peter Watkins.” And it’s definitely worth a read. The book is currently out-of-print, and I hope the successful release of Peter Watkins’ films on DVD over the past few years will help to rectify that situation.
I have long felt that a critic should review a film at least twice: once on his or her initial viewing, and once again at least a year later. Critics seldom have the time to do so: too many movies, too little time. Andrew Sarris did a famous about face on “2001: A Space Odyssey” when he returned for a second viewing while suitably under the influence, but most critics are “stuck” with their first pass at a film.
A year and a half ago, I was deeply moved by my first encounter with this film that resembles few others I have ever seen. Now, seeing it in its complete version, I find myself every bit as floored as I was the first time. I recently submitted a “top films” list to another site, and I included “Edvard Munch” among my Top Ten films of all-time. Now I wonder if I’m under-rating it.
Is the special edition worth buying if you already own the 2006 DVD? It wouldn’t be worth it for the extras, nor is there any noticeable difference in the transfer. However, it is more than worth it solely for the additional 46 minutes of footage. In fact, I think that both releases are must-owns for anyone who cares about Peter Watkins’ singular vision of cinema. For that reason alone, I consider the Special Edition of “Edvard Munch” to be one of the top DVD releases of 2007.
I’ll end my review the same way I ended my review of the 2006 DVD:
Why am I a film critic?
Because sometimes I get to write about films like “Edvard Munch.”