This film was actually a Norwegian TV series that was slightly abridged for a theatrical release in the rest of the world. (Unfortunately I watched the abridged version.) It’s a typical Peter Watkins approach to a documentary about a historical subject – filmed as if the film crew had travelled into the past.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a Watkins film, but this feels more radical than his earlier films. Yes, it’s already pretty out there – with cast members speaking directly to the camera and with Munch appearing to be annoyed by the fact that he’s being followed by a camera crew.
But it’s weirder than that, with the flashbacks to his childhood, with the disconnected and abruptly cut audio, with the narration that doesn’t always address what’s on screen. It’s an aggressively strange way of approaching a historical subject, at least if we look at conventional documentaries.
But I think it mostly works very well. Partly because of the subject matter – Munch clearly felt things very deeply – but also because of how fresh it feels, especially if you’ve seen too many documentaries, like me. There’s always construction in any story, even when that story is about something factual. Going the opposite route of verite just acknowledges the construction in narrative.
Plus, it lets Watkins focus on his pet concerns, which appear to at least be partially those of Munch himself. And that also makes the film fresh as it’s so easy to imagine a talking-heads, BBC-style art documentary about him that wouldn’t feel so relevant.
I’m not in awe of it like I was of Culloden or The War Game or Punishment Park but some of that is probably due to me just being a lot older now, and having seen a lot more film. Also, this is so much longer. But I still think it’s worth watching and it’s worth remembering that some people don’t make documentaries in the same formulaic way.