Peter Watkins 1973
The immediate refusal to uphold the ‘fourth wall’ in Watkins’ film was compelling considering how early on in the film it came. There was no slow build up to establish a contained reality that would then shattered – its dismissal was signalled from the start. Strange faux interviews are conducted with workers, sometimes talking heads or surrounded by children, describing their conditions, their standards of living or the social mores of the day – a curious bleeding between social-realist documentary styles of the early seventies and a pre-cinema Kristiania (Oslo). The acknowledgement of the camera, as it were, continued throughout the film. The cast of amateur actors are forever looking out, catching the camera as if it were an attendant presence against which a look of despondency or despair could be thrown. This was all in the service of a rhythm of sympathy that the film began to build up over the course of its three and a half hour running time – a method by which you were continually drawn into the concerns of those people in front of you by (almost physically) being implicated at every turn. It was like watching an unfolding drama and being dragged into proceedings through constantly being looked at, at times as direct and accusatory as a pointing finger. Although Watkin apparently thinks of the ‘fourth wall’ as an ‘elitist barrier’, I’m still unsure as to the effect of its remaining presence here – as it were a now a tattered curtain that hangs in front of the images either as a textural overlay or an impedance. For me its effect was strangely intoxicating – when the young actor playing Munch (Geir Westby) achieved his rhythmic turns to the camera, it was never in a comedic way, or indeed, if it makes sense to say, in a way that really broke the surface tension of the world in which the character existed. The actor’s deadpan portrayal suited this process admirably – his visual asides never Brechtian or Laurel & Hardy, but something else. I cannot really figure out what it was doing in fact. For this was established and sustained throughout – the film reminded me a great deal of Sokurov’s Russian Ark, even though its techniques and concerns are no doubt very different. It provided a hallucinatory access to a kind of dream world that became, as it were, the possession of the camera. It was less like being told a story than be allowed to process a stretch of individual experience that was unbroken either by its immersion into the ‘character’ of a certain world or by the constant awareness of its theatrical unreality. In some ways I think the film managed to put together a specifically pitched ‘partial’ world – somehow precisely unfinished – that allowed gaps, like negative space, for the viewer to come in and attach themselves. the was also compounded by the other methods used – the extremely slow pace and recurrent imagery, which allowed characters and events to be accompanied and revisited at various points in the narrative. In any case, the narrative, was clustered around points of obsession and repetition both in relation to Munch’s work and life – themes of pain, illness, rejection and despair that were articulated around tiny details that we were allowed (I suppose assuming that we are that way inclined) to pore over too, to obsess and distort, as images took on more and more import. This was the case with the portrayal of the affair with the married ‘Mrs Heiburg’ – tiny moments are returned to again and again, sometimes split into sound layers that colour other events, everything starting to bleed over all of the divisions achieved in the patterns of the edit. This build up of images, at a pace that allowed them to be lived with, to be irritated or exhausted by, constructed a psychological constellation more angularly expressive than one battened together through other, fast track means of mainstream cinema or switching edits of the mass media. Watkin replaces the bombardment of rapid editing by another kind of bombardment – that of obsessive, overturning disillusionment and solitude. The filmmaker’s commitment to slow pacing and the confidence to remain with, and return to images until they have begun to assume a materiality they would not otherwise have, allows the film to be absorbed slowly. Images are used as tools for reflection in the multiple sense of the term, both allowing us to fall into or think through them, or to allow them – e.g. the portrayal of many of Munch’s canvases – to be presented as complete surfaces that a camera can survey like a contemplative version of a helicopter-shot over a landscape.
The treatment of The Sick Child is strange – its uniquely erratic and violent composition signalling it as an expressionist breakthrough, but its genesis lost in a mix of formal and emotional causes. Watkin’s attempts to link the turbulence in Munch’s life and work to the events of the age – listing concurrent events around the globe – come across as a little undeveloped and his voiceover, which was otherwise very effective, did put me in mind of Adam Curtis and his political survey documentaries – which is perhaps not such a random association given the obvious political concerns in Watkin’s work. The themes of artistic isolation and commitment, as well as relentless critical rejection, are also related to Watkin, and the filmmaker apparently makes reference to his clear identification with Munch – which, I suppose, adds another degree of intrigue into the constant ‘gazes out’ that pepper the film – the actors looking out at the director, not in search of some direction or advice, but to remind him that he’s in front of the camera as much as they are.