Peter Watkins and the Politics of Expression
On Edvard Munch (1974) and The Freethinker (1994)
"Watkins' filmmaking bravely seeks an insistence on personal truth his own and the viewer's."
New Yorker Video, in a continuing series of Peter Watkins releases, has issued DVDs of
two films that are not only provocative and moving, but actually feel necessary. Yet not too many
people have seen Edvard Munch and The Freethinker, especially in the U.S. In explaining
why this is, Watkins is not shy about casting blame.
For most of his career, Peter Watkins has had a growing apprehension over the
developing "language" of Western and now international audiovisual media, whether
generated by a movie screen or a TV set. It all started with D. W. Griffith, he says, and you have
to believe him when you watch, say, the frantic race-against-time sequence in the "modern" story from
1916's Intolerance. With seconds to spare, an execution must be stopped, and Griffith seems to
have invented, on the spot, the very film grammar still used today to engorge an audience's sensory
intake. Midst D. W.'s rapid editing, with all its cross-cutting compressing time and space, who in
the audience can think of anything except saving that poor young man from the electric chair?
And then to watch a Hollywood thriller like 2004's Bourne Supremacy as I
just have is to witness the enduring power of Griffith's innovations. Take the car chase
sequence, for example. With the addition of bone-crunching sound and ever-accelerating intercutting
images flash at you for seconds or fractions of seconds at a time the onrush of sight and
sound makes Intolerance's efforts look like a stroll in the park. (Are there statistics on how
many petit mal seizures have been caused by this one sequence alone?) And yet it still carries the
basic filmic sentence structure developed by Griffith. It's just faster, louder, and, you could say,
more sophisticated in messing with your head.
Entertainments like the Bourne
drugs, and Watkins calls their
delivery system Monoform
: in his words, "the repetitive language that uses rapid "seamless"
cuts, and an incessant bombardment of movement and sound."1
Editing like this is now so overwhelmingly prevalent that an average viewer wouldn't be aware of a
distinction to make it's simply how much of the visual media behaves these days, and of course
that kind of blind acceptance is part of Watkins' point. He sees Monoform as a fascistic tool that
media moguls wield to control the film- and TV-watching public.
As he protests mightily, is Watkins just pissing in the wind? Back in the beat fifties,
William Burroughs declaimed that, like Mayan priests and their calendars, media baron Henry C. Luce and
his publications held sway over the minds of America. His magazines Time and Life told
readers what to think and feel every day of the year. It's thought control, Burroughs contended, a kind
Exactly, Peter Watkins would say. In the 19th-century Norway and Sweden, respectively,
of his films Edvard Munch and The Freethinker, it's the newspapers that functioned as
film and TV, manipulated by humongous corporations, do today. In those days, it was the monarchies
pulling the strings. Then came Griffith and the movies.
For Watkins, filmmaking is a political activity as well as a personal one; he remains
staunchly independent of the marketplace. In booklets accompanying the DVD releases of both films,
articles penned by Watkins and others lay out his ideology at some length, and it's persuasive. At the
same time, though, his ideas can seem off-puttingly dogmatic, projecting a rigidly held, single-minded
stance impervious to criticism.
Clearly, Watkins hates oppression of any kind, and he views the blanket application of
Monoform as an oppression of an insidious sort, operating on clueless people, like Americans, who view
themselves as part of a free society. That may well be. In the context of commercial TV, broadcast
news, and date night at the Cineplex, we are essentially zombies in thrall to a monolithic corporate
will. And I'll admit right now that I, well, enjoy the Bourne movies.
But I doubt that Watkins sees himself as a crusader to abolish film as entertainment or
propaganda two things it so frequently is, often at the same time. Instead, he's arguing for a
media alternative in which the public can actually participate and be allowed to reflect on what it
sees. Although such alternatives exist in independent and avant-garde filmmaking, the means of getting
them out to a large public is disappearing. With the withdrawal of government funding, public
broadcasting, for example, must now yield to the demands of the marketplace and effectively cease to
feature "alternative" viewing. As for commercial TV, there will be no more Rod Serlings or Paddy
Chayevskys or Playhouse 90s. And was the "golden age of TV" really all that golden?
It's now 2008, and anyone with a young, forming mind is part of the Entertainment
Generation with its attendant devices phones, iPods, whatever
out of which all the input, all the connecting leads to the
minimizing of what used to be called solitude, that place where self-knowledge, the processing of
primary experience, just being alive all that good stuff takes place. And as much as it
may be disappearing, self-reflection is key for Watkins and these two biographical works, Edvard
) and The Freethinker
Wanting the audience to lose its media junkie passivity and participate in the films,
Watkins disallows the fast cutting and "seamless" flow of cookie-cutter,
rush-to-the-end-and-save-the-girl feature film narrative. Pacing is slow and allows room for thought.
Scenes end decisively and move to the next often not linearly in regard to time and space. Formally,
the films' structures are more like mosaics that flash from one tile to another, toggling between past
and present, and often repeating scenes in different juxtapositions to others. The filmmaker makes
deliberate expressive choices in this structure, but the viewer, Watkins hopes, "completes" the film in
his own way by allowing image and sound to resonate with his own past and present. However cantankerous
Watkins may seem in print, his filmmaking bravely seeks an insistence on personal truth his own
and the viewer's.
In a leap, these films attempt to mirror the form of experience itself
experience, that is, minus iPod and car chase. Experience where you are responding to the environment
and all that entails, meaning not just the tree or person in front of you, but all the mass of social
and cultural forces of your time bearing down on you but, further, the vast store of memories
within you: the past. This is you, at any given moment.
And, in a parallel, equivalent way, this is Edvard Munch in Watkins' 1974 film. The
painter, with his tormented, lonely, outcast early career, has never found himself in a Hollywood
biopic probably because the turmoil and astonishing productivity of those years never
produced a true catharsis on which to hang an Irving Stone-type narrative arc. Far from committing
suicide or mutilating himself, Munch lived into his eighties after segueing (having committed himself
into an asylum in 1908) into a rather comfortable existence as a Famous Painter, with plenty of
commissions buying a nice big house and an enviable north-facing studio. His work changed, too.
Although he often revisited early themes and visual motifs, there were no more screams and bloody
skies. The figurative work and landscapes could sometimes be disturbing and mysterious but seldom
cathartic. Only some late self-portraits, as the painter faced his own mortality, hearken back to the
excoriating paintings and graphics made before the century turned.
Watkins keeps his film within the boundaries of the years 1884 to 1895 when Munch spent
his youth bursting into notoriety in Norway and then on the Continent. It's hard to think of another
painter who so directly translated personal anguish and terror onto graphic media. With a clear
specificity even unto events, there's a sister dying, a mother dead, sickrooms and death watches, a
girlfriend as darkling Madonna, jealousy, and suicidal depression. Viewing early Munch, you don't have
to feel you're speciously reading autobiographical agenda into the work. If you confront a painting
like 1890's The Red Vine
), where a house, although ostensibly covered by ivy gone to red in late
autumn, appears to be hemorrhaging (to the horror of the foreground figure), then Munch probably
intended it to be hemorrhaging.
While his contemporary, Vincent van Gogh, writing to brother Theo about his goals as a
painter, expressed a desire to act as a simple carthorse pulling a wagon full of people out to see the
spring, Edvard Munch seems determined to be a Virgil guiding his viewers through a personal hell.
Yet, before he gets underway with Munch's ghastly and formative childhood
"illness, insanity, death" Watkins opens the film by intercutting brief scenes of the Munch
household with staged, faux interviews with the 19th-century poor of Christiania (later Oslo) that then
collide with images of the era's wealthy middle class promenading along that city's Karl Johan Street.
The filmmaker's voiceover, which continues to intervene throughout, gives a detailed account of
Norway's arid and conservative cultural scene at the time, which neatly dovetails with descriptions of
the social strata in which the painter and his family found themselves during Munch's childhood and
adolescence when they held onto a middle-class existence only by the skin of their teeth, their
precarious income forcing them to live on the edges of slums.
Watkins, who began his career as a documentary filmmaker, frames these social and
cultural environs with documentary techniques (hand-held camera, jagged cuts, sudden zooms to a face)
that pop the illusion of a narrative window right from the start. Expecting maybe a biopic or carefully
considered documentary, the audience is set up for a different experience, where one is not strapped in
and sent on a thrilling but familiar ride through a storyland version of tragic creative
And, once again, who is the foremost example, since his death in 1890, of tragic
creative genius but Vincent Van Gogh? Perhaps the best made Hollywood biopic of a famous painter, but
still egregious in its distortions and false dramatic conclusions, is Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of
Irving Stone's potboiler biographical novel of Van Gogh, Lust for Life
Kirk Douglas, who proved a dead ringer for the painter as he's depicted in Van Gogh's
self-portrait with straw hat, gives a wonderful performance, but the film yields to forced
clichés about the relationship between Vincent's battle with a recurring illness and his lonely,
shortened career as Famous Painter. For the sake of lurid melodrama, the film relegates Van Gogh's
ever-increasing bouts of debilitating seizures to some kind of violent schizoid craziness that somehow
informed the painter's formal intentions and experiments. That twist and shout cypress tree and those
flashing stars in Starry Night
; the oppressive, saturated reds and greens in the Night
the guy had to be kind of nuts to paint these things, right?
The climax of Minnelli's show has Kirk/Vincent out under the blazing sun attempting to
finish one of his most famous late paintings, Wheatfield Under Threatening Skies. With no other
purpose than to harass the unhappy artist, a squadron of crows dives in on Van Gogh, who, flailing like
the madman he is, scares them off and then turns to the canvas, rendering the pesky scavengers as
jagged slashes of black paint. But it's Vincent's insanity and his fevered release of it into
paint that proves too much, and he cries out, "It's impossible!" abandons the canvas, steps deep
into the field, and shoots himself.
The implication here is that, crows aside, Vincent's isolation and mental illness had
pushed his art to an extreme that could no longer contain the bad energy raging inside of him
so, no more painting, time for death, time to "go home again" and "Theo, hand me my pipe."
More likely was that Van Gogh's illness possibly a physiologically based disease
and getting worse with more frequent seizures was making the activity
of painting less
possible. Poor Vincent: at the time, his work was going extremely well. When he was actually able to do
it, that is. There's nothing nutty about that late, crow-infested painting; it's very controlled and
carefully considered in form, content, and the application of paint. For over a hundred years the
painting's surface has remained "healthy." Van Gogh was very savvy technically; he knew how to paint
"fat over lean," so that the paint wouldn't crack and flake in a matter of a few years.
In other words, the painter had his wits about him. And so does Watkins' Munch. But
unlike Vincent, who mostly wanted to please with his imagery,4
Munch consciously strove to provoke and disturb. Once the filmmaker has
Munch break free of his family and begin his career, the painter begins to apply paint to canvas
always a tricky bit in the movies because they're mostly determined to make the act of creation look
like frenzied art therapy and not the deliberated, long haul of concentrated labor it mostly is.
When it's time for Munch to paint his groundbreaking work, The Sick Child
(1885-1886), Watkins seems to get off on the wrong foot and step into Lust for Life territory.
While still rooted in the naturalism then prevalent in Norway, the painting features a sudden
and uncharacteristic for the artist assault on the painting's surface, with palette knife, the
blunt end of a brush, fingernails, and who knows what else. The narration declares this activity of
scratching and scraping an aggressive release of frustration over his continuing problems with the
women in his life. Anything's possible, but I wonder, as Watkins also suggests, that the painter was
more intent on formal gains, like achieving his "nervous dissolving treatment of color," and reaching
toward a simplification of form.
Munch apparently never repeated this experiment. Throughout the rest of his life, Munch
resisted impasto and aggressive mark-making and instead would alter and move forms around by wiping the
surface clean of paint and beginning anew in order to create a relatively thin and deceptively
underworked surface, much like the Matisse of the twenties and later. As the film develops scenes of
Munch painting and making prints, Watkins excels in making it all appear legitimate and convincing. The
artist is working, not emoting, and knows exactly what he's doing. Watkins' Munch also recognizes the
work is going somewhere, not standing still.
It's in his personal life, and out in the world of galleries, critics, and commercial
endeavor that Edvard seems lost, fragile, and stuck in entropy. A repeated scene of the painter, alone
in a room weeping into his hands, saying, "I can't go on," reverberates either with the disappointments
inherent in his affair with Mrs. Heiburg or with the predicaments of poverty and isolation but
not with madness and the act of painting, as Vincent's cry of "It's impossible!" does in the Minnelli
The casting call for Edvard Munch yielded no Kirk Douglases: Watkins continued
and refined his practice of using non-actors, even for the two main roles of Munch (Geir Westby) and
Mrs. Heiburg (Gros Fraas). Both are superb, but Watkins isn't demanding performances in a traditional
movie sense, where characters "develop" within a linear dramatic arc. Munch and his mistress react to
each other the painter gets upset at times and has angry outbursts, etc. but the
filmmaker's mosaic structure has the effect of time standing still for long stretches while we take in
Munch as if he himself were an experience, not a character in a story.
Munch's six year, on-and-off affair with the married woman tagged "Mrs. Heiburg" is the
stem of the film's first half. Any scene of hesitant or passionate kissing between them is likely to be
juxtaposed with the oft-used sequence of the artist's mother dying when he was a small child. Sex,
death, and women are frequently fused in Munch's early work; the film's juxtapositions, the toggling
back and forth, has us experiencing this fusion as part of the "now" of Munch in the film, which also
uses audio means to achieve the effect. The sound of Munch weeping, as in the aforementioned "I can't
go on" scene, is layered on top of dialog and ambient sound in other scenes.
This splintering of the moment where past and present coexist finds a
powerful equivalent in a single work by Munch, The Death Chamber,
circa 1892, a watershed
painting depicting the painter's family in the aftermath of the passing of the mother, or possibly the
sister, at which times Munch was five and fourteen respectively. Yet he and his siblings are depicted
as being at the age they were in 1892, that is, as full-grown adults. In this way, Watkins skillfully
places Munch's creative mindset on the same page as his own.
The Edvard Munch
project was intensely personal for Watkins, as he makes clear
in the self-interview that's part of New Yorker's accompanying booklet: "I discovered I felt
a very deep affinity to this Norwegian artist."5
Quoted elsewhere in the booklet, Watkins describes how he felt the connection "on the most personal
level sexual fear and inhibition, need, yearning . . ."6
But just as strong was Watkins' sense that the painter's struggle with
critics, with acceptance in his own country, paralleled his own battles with the BBC, which had banned
his film The War Game
in the mid-sixties, and the press, which had severely "attacked" his
In his prose Watkins can sound bitter about his
career in a way that approaches paranoia, but then you realize, where have these two films been?
If Watkins' Munch film can then be seen as much autobiographical as biographical,8
his nineties project, The Freethinker
, is much less
so. But even here, where Watkins was commissioned by the Swedish Film Institute to produce a film about
August Strindberg, his completed work (in 1994) ran up against the same strictures, even outright
banning in Scandinavia, as did his subject's plays and writings in the 1880s.
Initially, in the early 1980s, after Watkins had dutifully produced a screenplay about
Strindberg, funding ran out, after which the project lay fallow until the filmmaker found the unlikely
support of something called the Nordens Folk High School. Here, Watkins abandoned all trace of auteurism and allowed his script to
be developed, added to, and improvised on, in a lively cooperative effort Watkins calls a "full-length
video production course."9
The results, which further the formal experiments of Edvard Munch
, produce a
profound effect on a viewer who's willing to focus on, and indeed participate with, this
four-and-a-half-hour film. The students, who look much older than "high school" students and thus must
took on all aspects of the production,
making costumes, filming, directing, and acting. As actors, none of them professional, they without
exception shine, particularly the two principals.
Much of the film concerns itself with the turmoil of Strindberg's first marriage to
Siri Von Essen, who's played by ecology student Lena Settervall (above, out of character).
Unconventionally beautiful, with a high forehead that beams intelligence, Settervall has a sometimes
solemn, often psychically charged presence that demands respect and admiration. By allowing Siri to be
a strong, modern woman who, in character and out, provides her own personal feelings about
male/female relationships Watkins gets one of his major themes across in a startlingly direct
manner. Edvard Munch was pervaded by that era's budding feminism among artists and writers, but
The Freethinker depicts it as an arena in which Strindberg and his wives and lovers engage,
split, and rejoin until the writer, in lonely dotage, retreats to a rooming house and profound
In a fearless, even physical performance, Anders Mattson plays the young August
Strindberg as an obsessed, angry, and rather unpleasant fellow who treats his wife badly. After Siri,
an actress before she met the writer, receives better reviews than her husband while performing in one
of his plays, Strindberg disparages, then forbids, her acting career. Their lives careening into
fighting, mutual bitterness, and near poverty, Strindberg continues to write plays and books of essays
and history that mostly alienate his public and the youthful Swedish intelligentsia who
discard him like smelly garbage.
As in the Munch film, Watkins keeps his narrative if you can call it a narrative
extremely simple. We see Strindberg as a child suffering under repressive parents, as a young
man and author provocateur, and finally Strindberg as old man. But these acted scenes are shuffled and
recombined constantly with no accommodation to a linear timeframe. The filmmaker sticks to the
mosaic-like structure he established in Edvard Munch
, but perforates the concept even further
with readings of Strindberg's prose and letters (often by the actors out of character), intertitles
with explanatory or excerpted text (replacing Watkins' voice-overs in Edvard Munch
question-and-answer session with an unnamed audience, and brief scenes from Strindberg's plays put on
by professional actors.
In one brilliantly staged (and improvised) sequence, a young, contemporary Strindberg scholar comes
running across a bare soundstage to angrily confront Anders Mattson, who is in character as Strindberg.
The scholar hurls accusations of domestic cruelty she's got a letter to prove it and
wants the writer to reconcile his misogyny and personal failings with his stature as thinker/writer. He
can't do it; in response, all he can muster is "C'est la vie."
Watkins and his student crew don't soften the writer's ugly stance toward women, but
they make the issue more complex and create depth and sympathy for Strindberg as a human being. Using
the techniques refined in Edvard Munch
, Watkins again achieves an "experiencing" of the artist
by rejecting a biopic's telescoped rush toward catharsis, or resurrection, or downfall, and allowing a
juxtaposition of scenes to suggest that artist's existential truth. Often, one scene may be a
notably static one. A recurring sequence in the second half of Freethinker
has the elder
Strindberg (Torsten Föllinger, not a student I'm betting) listlessly wander the parlor of an
end-of-the-line rooming house, picking out a melody (Chopin?) on the out-of-tune piano, straightening a
picture on the wall, or thinking and writing in a darkened bedroom. No drama here, but when placed next
to the young Strindberg tearing into poor Siri for whatever made-up offense, the effect is profoundly,
dry-eyed sad (i.e., not maudlin or sentimental) in a way I've never encountered in a film.
Shooting on video tape, I'm assuming pays
off in those rooming house scenes. The clinical dryness of the medium yields the exact texture of an
old man's loneliness in an empty rooming house parlor circa 1911.12
A scene following an intertitle featuring one of the writer's more hostile
anti-feminist texts is especially resonant, but its effect on a viewer is hard to predict because each
viewer will likely have a different response. In the intertitle, Strindberg's prose explains that, as a
writer, he must portray women so that they will "not have a clean spot on them." The film doesn't go on
to give Strindberg's larger textual context, so, in other words, what did the writer mean by that? It's
easy enough to guess: here's Strindberg, in a regressive manner, throwing blame onto women for some
kind of betrayal, and tossing in a bit of association with menstruation, too.
But as the intertitle cuts to a short sequence, never repeated, of Strindberg's mother
dying as father and son look on, the film provides its own visual context. Her mouth agape, the
mother struggles for breath; she's probably in a coma. Very graphic and realistic, as I can
attest: my mother died in a coma with her mouth agape in much the same manner. But in this context, and
in the viewer's context, the remark "not a clean spot on them" goes from simple misogyny to something
altogether more deeply personal, private in fact for Strindberg and the viewer.
In this way, Freethinker, and Edvard Munch before it, gets directly to a
central purpose: to dismantle the wall between the medium and its audience. For Watkins, these films
therefore become political, as he feels all artistic expression must be, if it carries the weight of
true and necessary communication. Matisse once said that his aim was to "simplify" painting, but Munch
was tackling the same goal just as Henri got his first box of watercolors. By striving to enact change,
however, both painters became "political."
Any true avant-gardist, like Munch or Strindberg, seems destined to isolation, in spite
of their art germinating within cultural and intellectual groups, and Watkins' films articulate these
influences with astonishing depth. With Munch you have the reigning intellectual group, the Christiania
Boheme; with Strindberg it's the "Young Sweden" group. The dynamic of each film then becomes simple:
each artist either detaches from the group or is discarded by it, to then go sailing off on his own.13
I know nothing of Watkins' early influences or any
membership in a group, but this theme of lonely creative endeavor brings the filmmaker's own career
experience into the mix, the idea of individual integrity, a moral consistency, that must be at the
core of an artist's intent. Such intent can forebode events (Watkins links Munch's sense of societal
terror, e.g., The Scream
to the 20th-century cataclysms of both world wars) and effectively
change how we see or think.
Taking on iconic figures in Norway and Sweden, both projects were shot in their
respective countries, using native nonprofessional actors speaking their own language. All actors were
encouraged to improvise, in character, on their own personal views on such topics as marriage; this
technique allows the films a lively tension between, say, the topic of the status of women in 1974 or
1994 and that same issue in circa 1890 as it affected the personal lives of the two artists. In
Edvard Munch the young Strindberg wanders into such a discussion among the Christiania Boheme,
and when the concept of women being freed from the strictures of marriage comes up, Strindberg enters
the fray with a misogynist bravado (no, keep 'em chained) that's then belied by his face's
descent into a look of vague regret. Does the regret belong to Strindberg or to the actor? The viewer
can't be sure.
Apparently, this brand of subtlety was not much savored by the media bosses in Sweden;
the film, according to Watkins, was "effectively" banned from TV throughout the Nordic region and
refused everywhere else.14 The Freethinker
, to my
own knowledge, never showed up on American public broadcasting, which in 1994 was concentrating on,
what, John Tesch concerts? Nowadays the prospect of seeing a film like The Freethinker
on public television is even more unlikely, with big producers of programming, like
Boston's WGBH, steadily buying into what Watkins has been decrying for decades: the use of a kind of
modified Monoform to juice up its projects. Everything from nature shows to a Masterpiece Theater
production of Dicken's Bleak House
a co-production of the BBC and WGBH now feature
jump cuts and sound mixes designed to make sure everybody's awake out there. Why not throw in some big
Watkins' films would be adjudged by the programmers as too long the equivalent
of asking the viewer to watch paint dry and, actually, maybe, too controversial. Edvard
ran afoul of Norwegian media, initially because a suit from the Munch family demanded some
material be cut. Watkins complied, and yet the film still lay dormant in Norway, possibly because of
resentment over the fact that the director of this film about the country's most beloved artist was a
That's no issue in America, of course, but
any show about a Famous Artist televised here must blunt biographical and societal sharp edges and
avoid that most uncherished quality these days: complexity.
In the films, Munch and especially Strindberg can be less than likeable, and what
American audience, assumes the programmers, wants their Famous Artist to behave like a prick? The
Famous Artist should be an inspirational hero and transcend the muck we live in, or, the one we glimpse
others living in. But there are lots of unpleasant, nontranscendent corners in Watkins' films: parents
die bleeding violently and/or painfully, prostitutes get humiliating vaginal examinations by health
inspectors, wives and mistresses get abused. The creative life is messy and unhappy but not unique, and
a lauded writer like Strindberg ends his life in the kind of banal loneliness that many of us must
face. These films are challenging because they toss the existential ball right at you and, then, once
you catch it, don't tell you what to do with it. You can't throw it back, and images from either show
can linger in the mind for weeks, or longer.
Speaking from the early 20th century, Marcel Proust seems to have articulated, in a
quite different context, what Watkins hopes the viewer might experience and take from his films. When
the critic Ruskin compared reading to a "conversation with the wise and noble," Proust wrote to
disagree, replying that, when one reads, it is "to receive a communication with another way of
thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that
one has in solitude . . ."16
As we watch his films, Peter Watkins wants us to retain that same intellectual power.
With his innovations, he permits the space and the solitude that allows us to do just that.
* * *
From where I sit, I would declare these two titles the best DVD releases of 2007. They
are indispensable and will hopefully ensure a wider audience, at least in North America, for these
deeply felt, innovative, and lucid films.
Because Watkins made them to be shown on television, both films are ripe for home
video. Transferred by Project X, New Yorker Video vividly presents them with little sign of aging, even
in the case of Edvard Munch, which is over thirty years old.
was shot on 16mm film and cut into two versions. The original
broadcast release, discussed here, runs 220 minutes; a theatrical release, distributed internationally
but at least initially only shown in the U.S., runs 174 minutes. New Yorker issued the cinema release
in 2006. I've only seen the company's longer broadcast cut, but to my eyes it looks wonderful. Watkins
must've used fairly fast film, which results in prominent grain even in well-lit situations, but the
grain gives the film a warm, intimate look, sometimes approximating the appearance of old autochrome
Edvard Munch comes with a hefty 56-page booklet containing a pertinent chapter
from Peter Watkins, Joseph Gomez's 1979 biography of the filmmaker, plus Watkins lengthy
self-interview, which goes far in detailing his creative intent and all the hopes and fears that go
along with it.
Also included are three short vintage Norwegian documentaries from 1953, 1957, and 1963
that easily justify their inclusion by giving a broad rundown on Munch's career beyond the period
covered by Watkins (right
). More importantly, they reveal how drastically the tide of public opinion turned in
favor of the artist until, by the 1950s, Munch had been granted his own museum and official status as
Norway's representative and beloved Famous Artist. In addition, there are six minutes of film shot by
Munch on an early 9.5mm "traveler's camera" in the twenties. An accompanying article in the booklet
attempts to tie these snippets to the painter's more visionary work, but to me it they looked like any
amateur fooling around with a new toy.
Although The Freethinker was less elegantly shot on videotape, the format
perfectly served Watkins' collaboration with his untrained filmmakers, and the film looks terrific on
DVD. The two-disc set comes with a 15-page booklet featuring texts by Watkins that detail his work with
the Nordens Folk High School and the post-production trials and tribulations.
1. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The
Freethinker. New Yorker Video, p. 8.
2. In an interview on the DVD of his film Inland
Empire, director David Lynch begs the viewer, "Please, don't watch this film on your phone!"
3. Regardless of its failings, I can't help being fond
of this picture, which has the mitigating factor of Miklós Rózsa's exceptional score.
4. Consider the two sunflower paintings he executed to
decorate Gauguin's room at the yellow house, or the painting of an apple tree in blossom intended for
the nursery of brother Theo's infant son.
5. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, Edvard Munch,
New Yorker Video, 35.
6. Ibid., 11.
7. Ibid., 35.
8. Ibid., 36.
9. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The
10. Does high school equal college over there in
11. Actually, maybe in Bergman, who was deeply
influenced by Strindberg.
12. The parlor's interior seems perfectly appointed
and furnished for the era, but, with the filmmakers' humorous nod perhaps to the artificiality of the
proceedings, Strindberg, deciding to go out, fetches his overcoat from what looks like a shiny plastic
13. The Freethinker provides a recurring but
succinct image for that very metaphor: a solitary Strindberg manning a small sailboat in a choppy sea.
14. Peter Watkins, booklet insert, The
15. Ibid., 29.
16. Quoted from Caleb Crain, "Twilight of the Books,"
The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2007, 138.
17. Autochrome was a very early photographic color process,
invented near the turn of the 20th century, that has a granular, almost pointillist look that gives its
prints a very painterly feel.