It is folly to argue with Ingemar Bergman’s description of Edvard Munch, the 1974 documentary by Peter Watkins of the Norwegian Expressionist artist, as “a work of genius”, nor with another view that it is “one of the best films ever made of the artistic process”. Having watched this three hour and forty minute epic through twice we found it a fascinating, poetic and beguiling account of the troubled and often reviled artist who put so much of his damaged self into his paintings.
Chronicling an unhappy childhood and young adulthood cruelly punctuated by the death of his mother from consumption (tuberculosis) when he was five, his own near-death when he was thirteen, the death of his adored sister Sophie from the same infection when she was fifteen and he was fourteen, the mental illness of his sister Laura, the death of his father when he was 23, and the death of his brother when he was 32 all contributed to Munch’s concentration on works that showed sickness, death or mental instability. The most famous of these was The Shriek (Scream) painted in the same year that Munch’s brother died, and judged along with Munch’s other paintings to be “hideous”, “repulsive” and “take it all to the insane asylum”. For his part Munch wrote in pencil in the lurid red sky of the painting “could only have been painted by a madman”. Madman or not one of the versions of his The Scream sold for a record $120 million at Sotheby’s auction in 2012.
Munch’s experience, and views of women also feature strongly in the film, which notes his numerous affairs, some with married women, and the influence on his, for some, misogynism from the bohemian and anarchistic types he mixed with, which also nurtured a love of alcoholic conversation.
Edvard Munch stars Norwegian actor Geir Westby in the title role and Gro Fraas as the married woman he called “Mrs Heiberg”, who broke his heart. It is beautifully shot, with beautiful close-ups and was released in the first UK Blu-ray version last month by Eureka Entertainment with an 80-page book which includes a Peter Watkins self-interview.