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EDVARD MUNCH (TV) (director/writer/editor: Peter Watkins; cinematographer: Odd-Geir Sæther; cast: Geir Westby (Edvard Munch), Gro Fraas (Fru Heiberg), Eric Allum (Edvard – 1868), Kare Stormark (Hans Jaeger), Rachel Pedersen (Inger Munch), Gunnar Skjetne (Peter Andreas Munch), Amund Berge (Edvard – 1875), Susan Troldmyr (Laura – 1868), Peter Watkins (Narrator); Runtime: 173; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Norsk Rikskringkasting/Sveriges Radio; New Yorker Films; 1974-Norway/Sweden, in Norwegian, English, Swedish, French and German with English subtitles )
The long biopic never seems overlong.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British filmmaker Peter Watkins’ (“The War Game”/”Privilege”/”Punishment Park”) amazing biopic, made for Norwegian TV (shot in Norway), chronicles in a serious documentary manner with non-professional actors, the formative youthful years from 1884 to 1894 of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), the pioneering Norwegian Expressionist who was haunted by a lifetime of demons from within. The long biopic never seems overlong. Munch’s the tortured genius artist driven to madness, whose story is taken from his extensive diary; he earned his international fame from his painting called Scream, whose striking unforgettable images of anxiety and inner terror has become part of the world’s consciousness. The biopic is accomplished with an academic voice-over in English provided by Watkins that fills us in with the necessary facts of Munch’s life as the dramatic scenes are enacted in Norwegian with subtitles and whose scenes are framed as if they were paintings. Rivette’s 1991 masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse seems to have been influenced by Peter Watkins’ pic, as both are excellent studies that observe an artist at work and bring the viewer close to the creative artistic experience.

The film, admittedly more for the artistic connoisseurs than the mainstream filmgoer, does a good job covering the social conditions (such as the abuse of children, who work with no laws to protect them) of Munch’s Oslo (then known as Christiania) hometown of the 19th century, his bohemian friends being influential in his thinking (mainly Hans Jaeger), his affair with an older married woman (Fru Heiberg), his muted rebellion against his middle-class upbringing (his father was a doctor), and how the sickly and alienated youth was raised without a sense of intimacy and was crushed by family illness, insanity and death (his loss of his mother and sister to tuberculosis, and his ever-present bronchial condition). During this period Munch, as sensitively played by Geir Westby, quietly railed against his father who could not help through medicine but could only offer prayer.

After following the quiet artist’s many influences, his art studies abroad in France and Germany, and long drawn out profiles of his relationship with family, with his many friends and fellow artists, Munch’s drive to express himself through his art finally comes through and we see how his unique art speaks for what was buried inside his guts and couldn’t get out any other way. What is remarkable, is how alive this presentation is. It tells how Munch’s internal conflicts were exacerbating his already ill health, and when taken over in his last years by increasing isolation and bouts with depression and an eventual nervous breakdown, he still never stopped painting until hospitalized in his final year at 80. Watkin’s sober-minded personal film is a detailed study of Munch brought to the screen in such a vivid and forceful expressive manner that is worthy of its subject; it captures the spirit of the creative process–which might be the most difficult thing to do when presenting an artist’s biography.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”