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Edvard Munch

  •  - Norway - Sweden
  •  - NRK - SVT
  •  - 1973
  •  - 2 hrs 52 mins (cinema)
  •  - 3 hrs 30 mins (TV)


‘EDVARD MUNCH’ is the most personal film I have ever made. Its genesis lies in a visit to the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, in 1968, during the time of a screening of several of my films by the Oslo University. I was awestruck by the strength of Munch’s canvases, especially those depicting the sad life of his family, and was very moved by the artist’s directness - with the people in his canvases looking straight at us. I also felt a personal affinity with his linking of past and present, e.g., in the large painting showing the anguish of his family as his sister Sophie is dying: the artist and his brothers and sisters are depicted as adults -as they were in the 1890s when he painted this scene - even though the event had taken place ca. 20 years earlier. On another occasion, I was also very moved by Munch’s masterpiece ‘Death of a Child’, hanging in the National Gallery in Oslo; in this painting the artist is broken, and has, in an almost desperate frenzy, blurred the form of his earlier depiction of Sophie’s death. This painting, in its time, was attacked as being “incomplete” - a charge which branded certain of his other works as well.

It took me three years to persuade Norwegian TV (NRK) to fund this film, and in the end it only happened because Swedish TV convinced them to participate in a co-production.


‘Edvard Munch’ was filmed during two separate periods in 1973: February-March for the winter scenes, and May-June for the spring and summer scenes. Once again I worked with an entirely amateur cast - this time it was Norwegians from our filming locations in Oslo and the small town of Åsgårdstrand on the Oslo fjord. Geir Westby played Edvard Munch; Gro Fraas - Mrs. Heiberg; Johan Halsbog - Munch’s father, Dr. Christian Munch; Berit Rytter Halse - Munch’s younger sister Laura Munch; Gro Jarto - Munch’s mother Laura Cathrine Munch; Lotte Teig - Aunt Karen Bjolstad; Rachel Pedersen - Munch’s sister Inger; Gunnar Skjetne - Munch’s brother Peter Andreas; Eli Ryg - Oda Lasson; Morten Eid - Sigbjørn Obstfelder; Kåre Stormark - Hans Jaeger. The film crew - cameraman Odd Geir Saether, art director Grethe Hejer, costume director Ada Skolmen, make-up artist Karin Saether, sound recordists Kenneth Storm-Hansen and Bjorn Hansen, researcher Anne Veflingstad, dialogue advisor Ase Vikene - came from NRK, and was one of the very best working groups I have ever had. This was truly one of the ‘magical’ creative experiences of my life - and I sadly regret not having been allowed, in all those years since, to continue developing this method of working.


One could probably find hundreds of reviews of ‘Edvard Munch’ from the time of its extensive broadcasts on European and Scandinavian TV in the mid-1970s, and subsequent cinema screenings in the US, France, Australia and elsewhere. Most reviews tended to be positive, though there were some critics who found the film repetitive and exaggerated. The extracts of ones included here happen to be the reviews which I still have at hand, and appeared in Britain after ‘Edvard Munch’ was first shown on BBC-TV in March 1976.

‘TRIP ON THE BORDERS OF GENIUS AND INSANITY ... I cannot remember a more haunting film about an artist. The silent, wide-eyed and lonely melancholy of Munch (Geir Westby) and the changing expressiveness of his “Mrs. Heiberg” (Gro Fraas) set the contrasted styles. Watkins managed to be still and restless, clear-cut and disordered, without any contradiction.’ (The Daily Telegraph)

‘MESMERIC MUNCH. The terrific intensity with which Peter Watkins began his dramatic documentary about the painter Munch was such that no spectator could have supported it for three hours and a half without smashing something near at hand or passing into a form of psychiatric care ... Grave and eloquent faces of all ages stared into the camera, and whether they were calling for help, asking us to go away or merely to remember carefully the terrible things we had seen was not important. Whichever it was, we were mesmerized, dragged into the film and the year 1884 ... But for three hours and a half? That Edvard Munch was sometimes repetitive but never became tedious, was due partly to the suggestive handling of the Expressionist process itself - a trembling brush, a haemorrhage of scarlet paint, Munch also hacking the canvas away in “the struggle to remember, the struggle to forget” - but still more to Watkins’ superbly confident direction and editing of a largely amateur Norwegian cast ...’ (The Times)

‘PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST. Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch is a remarkable piece of work. It is the most effective transposition to the screen of the mentality and environment of the “artist” (or anyone of heightened sensibility and complex intelligence) that I have seen. It is original in its narrative devices: sumptuous in its visual effects (cameraman Odd Geir Saether) and unerring in its selection of faces (all amateurs) to suggest peasant or metropolitan stock - sickly Norwegian petite bourgeoisie, radiant young bohemian girls, or artists and intellectuals crowding together, plotting to change Norwegian society until bad living puts an untimely end to their hoped for victory ... Watkins’ initial task was to establish firmly the elements in the Norwegian painter’s early life which were to haunt him continually and dictate the nature of his artistic preoccupations ... There is a steady overlapping of action, or simply conversation, and intrusive memory. A moment of love provokes images of bloody illness: the fever of work recalls incidents of domestic repression or the torment of rejected love ... This overlapping is carried further in that, within the narrative, characters seem to be listening passively to conversations taking place off-screen. And in a marvellous device, disconcerting at first, characters in the film silently regard us as they are talked about ... One of the most impressive films made for television in a decade.’ (Peter Lennon, The Sunday Times)


In the years that followed, I made several further attempts to work at portraying the lives of other artists (including the Italian Futurist poet Marinetti, and the Russian pianist and composer Scriabin), but each of these projects collapsed in the early stages. In several cases, it became clear that TV producers wanted something different - and yet didn’t (- exactly the same contradiction at the root of so many difficulties in France for ‘La Commune’). TV organizations appear to want the caché of creating something unique and different - without it in fact being really genuinely different at all. A further and crucial part of the problem lies in the fact that in recent years TV productions have become very much afraid of working with ‘ordinary people’. Which is why films like ‘Culloden’ and ‘Edvard Munch’ will never be made again. The direct involvement of the public in the creative process of TV - which has always been at the essence of my work - is seen as a threat, for it represents a change in the usual hierarchical relationship between producer and passive spectator. In a word - it represents a loss of control. Of course it is never stated in this way; TV executives usually resort to attacking the ‘standard’, the ‘creative level’ of the work instead.

In the case of ‘Edvard Munch’, a group of NRK producers met the day after the film was shown to denounce its use of ‘amateurs’and the fact that the cast employed idiomatic modern expressions in their dialogue, as opposed to the style of Norwegian language spoken at the turn of the century. From that moment on (and in marked contrast to the growing acclaim for ‘Edvard Munch’ from abroad), NRK demonstrated a high level of antipathy towards the film. They - and the Swedish TV - tried to prevent ‘Edvard Munch’ from representing Norway at the Cannes Film Festival, and NRK subsequently destroyed all of the original quarter-inch sound recordings (including the final sound mix) at the time when these were needed to produce a cinema version of the film. All that was left were battered and worn 16mm magnetic working copies, and it was only thanks to the ingenuity of Kjell Westmann, a sound mixer in Stockholm, that we were able to filter out the hiss and background noise on these copies, and to reproduce something approximating the original sound for the cinema version of ‘Edvard Munch’.

Thanks also to the efforts of Florence Bodin, a member of the TV Sales Department of Swedish TV in Stockholm, ‘Edvard Munch’ was very widely screened on European TV in 1977, as well as in several cinemas in America. But after that, for many years, especially after the film returned to the care of NRK in Oslo, it sat on the shelves completely neglected. From all available evidence, NRK did very little for almost 20 years to get ‘Edvard Munch’ shown, and made it very difficult for people to rent the film (often obstructing inquiries altogether). NRK also refused to make new prints of ‘Edvard Munch’, sending out poor video copies on those occasions when they let people rent the film. Once even, NRK sent a copy of ‘Edvard Munch’ to an exhibition of Munch’s works at the London National Gallery - and the video turned out to be mostly black.

© Peter Watkins 2024