I scream, you scream …

Nov 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

Edvard Munch’s tragic life story is perfect for a big-screen adaptation. Forever known as the man who painted that anguished and tremulous figure under a sky of swirling fire in “The Scream,” we love to think of Munch as a mad genius haunted by inner demons, destined to express his disillusionment on canvas.

But the truth of Munch’s life, while devastating, is not as mythical. Simply put, he had a bad cough. Plagued with the aftereffects of tuberculosis that nearly killed him as a child, Munch didn’t breathe life in so easily. Who knows — maybe if he’d had a lifelong bout of hiccups he would have painted Mickey Mouse types rather than the dislocated zombies so creepy to look at to this day, despite all the mugs, umbrellas and baby bibs they’re printed on.

In 1968, after visiting the Munch Museum in Oslo, filmmaker Peter Watkins wanted to portray the artist’s life without embellishment, employing nonprofessional actors and setting claustrophobic scenes within dank beer halls and dusty sitting rooms so cold you can see every breath like smoke. The result is a hazy and haunting film, one that Watkins calls the most personal he’s ever made.

His film, 1973’s Edvard Munch, is a detailed dramatization that lays out the arc of the artist’s career, beginning with traumatic scenes from his childhood. Born in 1863 in Loten, Norway, Munch grew up in Christiania (now Oslo), a small town ruled by a conservative Protestant working class. As a young boy, he watched his mother and younger sister die horrible deaths from TB.

The film is a remarkable collision of sequences reflecting the artist’s constant and probably exhausting state of psychic unrest. Although dismal and occasionally even gruesome, Watkins’ portrayal is visual poetry. In one sequence, imagery of red paint oozing from a tube is followed by bright red blood hemorrhaging from his sister’s tiny mouth.

It takes a keen eye and mind to express the symbolism of life and death in art without seeming heavy-handed. This makes some of the director’s choices difficult to understand, especially his decision to use a documentary style that seems superfluous. Characters in the film occasionally talk to the camera as if they’re being interviewed.

The late 1800s were years when most people in Western civilization were growing anxious about civil unrest and unsure about the effects of industrialization. In looking at Munch’s art, we can see it affected his mind-set. It makes sense, then, for the narrator to note the years that Marx wrote pivotal books and Hitler was born. But telling us about civil war in Chile and widespread famine in Russia seems a bit much — especially since Watkins is attempting to engage his audience for three hours.

There’s no question what’s most beautiful about this film: extreme close-ups of a soft wet brush on canvas and the sound of pencil gouging board. Rigging a microphone to the back of canvas is the best idea Watkins had; it makes the film feel intimate, not just a sob story of a lost love that overwhelmed the man. It’s a depiction of the spontaneous thunderstorm that is Munch’s art, be it a woodcut or a painting about a corpse or a kiss.

After years of critical disapproval in Norway and Germany (Munch was even asked to remove his paintings from one solo exhibit in Berlin), it wasn’t until 1889, when the artist met the symbolist poets in Paris, that he finally found his comrades, artists who believed in the truth of subjectivity. But in the end, Munch’s anxiety got the best of him and he checked himself into a psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen, coincidentally, the same year he was honored as a knight of regal Norwegian order. As he said, life always shakes the hand of death.


The Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237). At 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11, and 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected].