In some of the last words spoken in Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974), a 21-year-old Munch asks his lover, ‘Did you notice me much before?’ She responds, ‘Yes, I often looked at you. I thought you looked like Christ.’ It’s a fitting line for a film in which the visionary Expressionist emerges as a withdrawn, pale-faced martyr, misunderstood by bourgeois society and reviled by contemporary critics. In Watkins’ extraordinary mix of biopic, documentary and hagiography, Munch is always one painting away from being dragged to the cross.
The film, which turns 50 this year, tracks the artist’s life from the heady music halls and fussy pageantry of middle-class Kristiania (now Oslo) in the 1880s to the avant-garde circles of Paris and Berlin in 1890s. Munch – restless, inhibited, and devastated by his sister’s death – dissents from his father’s Protestantism and slips in with the Kristiania bohemians, led by provocateur and political philosopher Hans Jæger. It’s at this point that he begins an affair with Millie Thaulow (a cousin by marriage, referred to in his diaries as ‘Mrs Heiberg’), whose refusal to commit to Munch is its own kind of blunt trauma. Only after these calamities, the film suggests, can Munch complete The Sick Child (1885–86), a desolate picture of his sister’s final, crumpling moments and embark on what would become his Frieze of Life: Symbolist paintings where bulging layers of colour emanate from figures like thermal maps and faces meld together in a ruinous unity.
In the decade before making Edvard Munch, Watkins pioneered a form of docudrama or pseudo-documentary: a synthesis of current affairs reportage, talking-head interviews, TV news bulletins and cinéma verité-style snapshots – all fictional yet staging historical or hypothetical events. The form alone was groundbreaking, but Watkins’ use of it to launch polemics against Western political systems was even more so. Punishment Park (1971), a dystopian take on Nixon-era civic discipline, got under the skin of contemporary critics, while The War Game (1966), a quasi-horror film depicting a post-nuclear Britain in shock, was censored by the BBC for three decades. By the 1970s, Watkins was exclusively working abroad; Watkins made Edvard Munch for Norwegian and Swedish television, boiling down this three-and-a-half-hour miniseries to just under three hours for theatrical release. It’s less caustic, more ruminative than his earlier work, and explores an apparently more genteel subject. It’s clear from the film, however, that Watkins identifies unusually strongly with the tortured artist: both were innovators, exiles from their home countries and, at some point, critical pariahs.
Throughout the film, Munch, played by Geir Westby in his only acting role, experiences multiple aesthetic ‘breakthroughs’. The narrator praises the austere work Inger in Black and Violet (1892) as such an event, for its innovative lack of perspective; Melancholy (1891), too, for its areas of flat colour; and The Sick Child, with its passionately scored and scraped surface, for transcending visible reality to become ‘the first Expressionist painting of feeling in the history of Western art’. And, of course, there’s The Scream (1893), unveiled in the closing act of the three-and-a-half-hour film. More interesting, however, than this rapturous attempt to plot an endless series of breakthroughs is Watkins’ impressionistic account of how they were produced. He stitches moments from Munch’s life together in a non-linear, overlapping, interruptive sequence – full of repetitions and reappearances, like Munch’s own motif-heavy output – as if the analyst’s couch is somehow plugged into the big screen. Films about artists can often reduce the elusive, contradictory influences that give rise to a work of art to an A-to-B-style causality. But Watkins’ narrative back-and-forth allows him to locate the origins of Munch’s work in an array of traumas and neuroses, refusing to give in entirely to the linear impulse of biography.
As is typical of Watkins’ style, the film uses documentary techniques – talking heads, shaky observational cameras – alongside fictive and improvised scenes. There is a strong corrective logic in Watkins’ body of work, where abuses of power and historical faults are exposed, often through acerbic juxtapositions. Unlike recent biopics of artists, such as the intensely subjective At Eternity’s Gate (2018) or Dalíland (2023), where society exists at best purely in relation to the artist and at worst as elaborate set dressing, Edvard Munch bears the thoroughly class-conscious stamp of its maker. Scenes of the Munch family home are spliced together with mock-interviews of dead-eyed factory workers; the audio of a servant scrubbing floors bleeds into clips of Munch striking his canvas. Munch may be Watkins’ persecuted saint, but there’s no escaping the fact that he was a bit middle-class.
What makes Edvard Munch still so valuable then, 50 years on, is the way it seems to at once resist and cannibalise the different forms the artist biopic can take. It’s a Künstlerroman, a portrait of artistic development and breakthrough; yet it is formally recursive, returning to the same clips of blood dribbling down his sister’s chin, or of the artist weeping into his hands, in an agitated loop. It’s because of this open, unresolved quality that the film evokes contemporary attempts to wrestle with the art-historical canon, both to confirm and deconstruct it.
It may seem unusual that Watkins doesn’t address the now widely accepted idea that Munch, who died 80 years ago this week, had something of a talent for self-mythologising. Watkins gives us one legend of Munch, but the artist’s own elliptical diaries from which Watkins draws – a kind of textual performance in themselves – got there first. ‘These are in part my experiences, in part fabrications… [I intend] to give them imaginative life,’ he writes. Watkins takes Munch at his word everywhere but here. Who knows what other formal innovations would have arisen if he hadn’t?