Well If You Must Scream

We can scream if we want to!
We can scream if we want to!

Inspired by the current polling going on at Wonders in the Dark  (which for my money is the best movie blog site on the web right now) concerning the Best Films of the 1970’s, I decided to catch up on some of the great films from that decade I had yet to see.  One thing led to another, and there I was with the obscure Edvard Munch sitting atop my Netflix queue.  Directed by renowned forefather of the docudrama, Britian’s Peter Watkins, this complex and nearly four hour long biopic of Norwegian post-Impressionist painter Edvard Munch was originally made as a miniseries for Norwegian/Swedish TV in 1974.  It was released theatrically around the world in 1976 and was recently done up as a two-disc special edition on DVD.  I watched it in those two parts over the course of two nights and was completely transfixed.

Brazenly presented in the style of a documentary, Watkins’ film begs you to feel as if his cameras were literally there from “moment one” in Munch’s childhood during the late 1800’s all they way up through the abrupt close of the film half way through his life around 1910.  There are scenes done like mock-interviews with family, friends and critics, as well as “flashback” style scenarios and voice-over narration (by an austere Watkins) describing the socio-political climate that shaped Munch’s worldview.  Extreme close-ups and grainy hand-held photography serve as precursors to the infamous Danish “Dogme 95” film movement some twenty years later.  In fact, how the exaggerated and unrealistic color schemes of Munch’s paintings may have inspired the early films of Lars Von Trier (The Element of Crime, Medea, Europa) while the hyper-minimalism of Watkins’ film about Munch surely influenced his Dogme era films (Breaking the Waves) could be fodder for a whole separate discussion.   Unlike a Dogme film, however, where style was often done for style’s sake, the unique and forward-thinking sound design and editing of Watkins’ magnum opus was done to mirror the inner turmoil and obsessions of the film’s protagonist. 

Watkins allowed the audience to fall in and out of love and hate along with Munch.
Watkins allowed the audience to fall in and out of love and hate along with Munch.

Munch had a tortured childhood in Christiania (now Oslo) where he witnessed his mother and sister succumb to tuberculosis while he often found himself sick and at death’s door.  He also suffered through a strained relationship with his pious (and perhaps bi-polar) father.  Seeking meaning in the madness and driven by a strong desire to rebel, a young Munch became caught up in the Bohemian cafe society where like-minded artists, writers and philosophers rallied against conservative middle class social mores and preached the virtues of free-love, hard living and suicide.  It was in this milieu where Munch’s style developed and evolved while he battled his inner demons and became further scarred by disastrous affairs with married or “free” women.  The film presents us with repeated images of tender moments capturing his first love affair interwoven with scenes from his sister’s and mother’s blood-curdling deathbeds overlapped yet again with sights and sounds from the raucous cafes of Christiania and later Berlin.  As a result of this uncanny editing, the viewer is literally transported inside Munch’s head as he anguishes over his canvases with often violent strokes of his brush or pallet knife and is left sobbing in his isolation.  Part of the appeal beyond the stylized film technique on display is the level of intimacy it allows the viewer to reach with many of the artist’s most powerful works…one of which, “The Sick Child” we see painstakingly created from conception to completion.

During this turbulent time Munch inevitably became one of those artists whose paintings were critically reviled as the disturbed and meaningless smears of a madman, and later he was actually institutionalized for a short spell with “anxiety”.  Nowhere is this anxiety more on display than in his most famous work, “The Scream”.  Watkins also showcases other artists and writers who influenced or were influenced by Munch’s work, most notably the Swedish playwright and novelist August Strindberg.  It was Strindberg whose work later held Ingmar Bergman in rapture, and it should come as no surprise that many moments from Bergman’s films, most notably Cries and Whispers and The Hour of the Wolf, seem as if they were Munch paintings come to life.  Bergman often dealt with many of the same themes as Munch’s work surrounding not just an artist’s painful introversion but also man’s psychotic desire to uncover the innermost thoughts of woman — no matter how horrifying those thoughts are.  As Watkins’ film so clearly portrays, many of Munch’s contemporaries had their lives cut short by disease, drink, murder or suicide.  Yet ironically it was Munch who lived until 1944 up to the ripe old-age of 80 (no unlike Bergman also did in the next generation) and apparently found some level of peace in his later years (not depicted in Watkins’ film) when his work became more well regarded and he achieved a level of financial stability that allowed him to take care of his remaining sisters (one of whom went mad) and aunt.  Peter Watkins’ portrait of Edvard Munch, much like the works of its subject, was clearly ahead of its time and deserves a high ranking in the canon of films depicting the psychological life of an artist.

Shhh...it should be no secret that this Bergman film image was inspired by the paintings of Edvard Munch.
Shhh...it should be no secret that this Bergman film image was inspired by the paintings of Edvard Munch.

I always find it fascinating how one artist can influence another, how generations can connect across the vast expanse of time and place through the art they leave behind and how artists from the same generation often tap into shared fears and emotions and elemental themes without ever being aware that the other was thinking the same thing at the same time.  Twice in the past two days as I drove, Airborne Toxic Event’s “Wishing Well” played on the radio as I reached my destination.  Nobody else in modern rock seems to cover “young male artist angst” as well as this group, and both times I found myself compelled to sit in my parked car until the song was over.  It’s the type of song you want to listen closely to the lyrics, and the lyrics here conjuring images of “…and she emerged from the dark like a ghost in my head” could just as easily have been influenced by Munch as not.  Sitting in my car listening to the song made me think of that moment from Robert DeNiro’s film A Bronx Tale where the young boy learns the best way to test a girl and find out if she really likes you is to see if she’ll unlock the car door for you.  Well, in this day of power locks and remote-controlled starting, that test seems unlikely.  I always thought a great way to test a woman’s connection to you is to see if she is willing to sit there in a parked car listening to a good song until it ends.  Another great test for me:  Will she stay for the credits after a good film?

And while listing to “Wishing Well” I thought of Edvard Munch and his primal shrieks, the interconnected nature of art and life and life as art, that blood-red sky hanging over “The Scream”, the model for Munch’s “Madonna” who was later shot dead through the head by a mad Russian lover, that innocent kiss on the back of the neck that inspired his “Vampire”, the mad women from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and well, that well that Rex Thomas Gail fell down in his dreams in my own novel The Thief Maker, and that botemless well that haunted my nightmares until Paul Thomas Anderson revealed to me what was at the bottom in There Will Be Blood.  Well…what is at the bottom?  A Scream?  Oil?  A Canvas?  Ambition?  Love?  Despair?  Art?  Part of the beauty and mystery of life is figuring it out for yourself…

Written by David H. Schleicher 


Famous Munch-isms:

“I paint not what I see, but what I’ve seen.”

“I inherited two of mankinds most frightful enemies — the heritage of consumption and insanity.”

“I have no fear of photography as long as it can not be used in heaven or in hell.”

“From my rotting body flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

Click here for a past Tribute to Ingmar Bergman.



  1. Wow David!!! Inspired you are here, and in an infectious way!! I dare say this is the greatest piece I have ever read by you at this blog, and you’ve had some excellent ones. Yes the Scandinavian sensibilities are inter-woven, and Munch has inspired Bergman’s compositions, and nordic literature, and Watkins’s film (which I saw for the first times three weeks ago in preparation for the 70’s poll) is perhaps (as you suggest) the most psychologically potent of any film ever made about an artist.

    That first Munchism was actually used in the episode “Pickman’s Model” in Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY.

    Munch is my favorite painter of all-time, Bergman is my favorite filmmaker of all time, and THE SCREAM is my favorite painting of all time.

    Why do I glow when I read this post?

    Extraordinary work here. The Region 2 Masters of Cinema DVD of this film is to die for!

    Thanks so much for that extraordinary compliment at the outset of this masterful post, David!

    Thanks, Sam. I credit Wonders in the Dark for shining the light on many films I would not have taken chances on in the past…this Edvard Munch among them. –DHS

    • Nice work David, on one of my absolute favorite films. The way Watkins weaves together multiple layers of reality reflects the confused and tormented existence of Munch himself. In Watkins’ fluid, associative editing scheme, past and present coexist, as do reality and art, mental turmoil and exterior calm. Watkins keeps returning over and over again to the same scenes that defined Munch’s life and so took on a totemic power for him: his childhood illness, the deaths of his family, his brief moments of happiness in an affair.

      And of course, since Watkins is a *very* political filmmaker, the film is continually positioning Munch within his political and social context, both through mock-interviews with the poor of the time and through the scenes of the era’s sexual and artistic revolutions.

      Some time ago I named this film part of my “Films I Love” series:


      Ed, thanks for reading. You are apt to call the film’s editing style as “fluid”. Unlike, though, say a Terrence Malick film, the fluidity was bordering chaos here, which perfectly mirrored Munch’s inner psyche. The only other film I can think of that made me feel like I was suffering from the same affliction as its protagonist was perhaps Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Brilliant stuff, this Edvard Munch is. –DHS

  2. I think you outdid yourself with this post, Dave. So observant!!! All I can say … wow, I LOVE those red drapes!

    Rebecca, those drapes certainly are something else. They look rather like the same pattern from the “Red Room” in David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS — oh, there I go making another connection. –DHS

  3. Wow, David that was a wonderful review. It almost makes me want to rent the film. But yikes 4 hours is a lot of time. Of course I could do the 2 day approach.
    I found your review having great depth and insight.
    I am always interested on how one viewer interprets a film compared to the next.
    I do also agree all sorts of artists inspire the next sometimes coming full circle and at that point it becomes a repeat of some part of great history.
    A Big Bravo for this review!
    I am amused on your test of greatness for a woman, surely you will find many who pass.

    Debra, thanks! I would definitely recommend the two-night approach to the film. I don’t think I could’ve done the full four hours nor found the time to devote to it in full like that. It works very well with a break to ponder, digest and rest. Plus it gives you ample time to check out the extras on the DVD.

    As for the girlfriend “test” — you’d be surprised how many fail — and actually, I was able to pull off the classic Bronx Tale test back in my college days with my decrepit old car, and alas, the poor sweet girl failed that, though I think in hindsight she may have been under the false impression I had power locks and thus did not feel the need to reach over and unlock the door for me as I came around to the driver’s side after I held the door for her while she got into the passenger seat. –DHS

  4. Wow!(Make that 3…Wow!)
    Hi! D.H.,
    I have to second the motion…what a very interesting
    review of a film that I plan to throw in my (the) cart. But, I’am not sure if I should subscribe to Netflix?!?…in order to watch the film first..then if I like it…to purchase it!…especially, after reading your review of the film.

    Being an artist, I like several artists at this time…including Edvard Munch, but my all-time faves
    (favorites) are Georgia as in O’Keeffe,(She suffered with depression) Mark Rothko,(Committed suicide)Jackson Pollack,(A man on the edge) Degas,Monet,Manet and Renoir. I also liked the “sounds” of Airborne Toxic Event’s “Wishing Well”…video that you have posted here on your blog.

    …By the way, I also “overheard” that the killer masque (mask) from the horror film Scream was based on artist Edvard Munch painting…The Scream. Hmmmm…True or False?!?

    Now, I digress, D.H.,I will send you an email about the films that I plan to send to you…
    …Oops! and I still haven’t visited R.L.Bourges, yet!…Coming!
    Take care!
    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee: Netflix…Yes (it is my life blood). All of those artists…Yes (I love Renoir especially though my favorite artist would be Andrew Wyeth). Scream…True! –DHS

    • D.H.,
      I have to admit that Andrew Wyeth is one of my favorite artist too!…as a matter of fact, this artist with the initials C.S., let me feature his paintings on my blog and I mentioned to him that I thought some of his artwork is…Wyeth inspired.
      However, he paint in so many different styles that sometimes his artwork looks Wyeth inspired and sometimes it (his paintings) looks very, very…different from artist Andrew Wyeth’s paintings.

      Now, I digress, again…
      D.H.said,”Netflix…Yes (it is my life blood)
      Hmmm…I think that I will give Netflix a…“second look.”
      DeeDee 😉

  5. Correction: I mentioned to him that I thought some of his artwork [looks]…Wyeth inspired.
    However, he [paints] in so many different styles that sometimes his artwork…

  6. David, enjoyed this piece & it sounds like a fascinating film. It will definitely be placed near the top of my currently on-hold Netflix queue.

    Funny that Dee Dee mentioned Scream, that was something that occurred to me too, especially once you mentioned the strange and often surprising way influences spread throughout generations. I liked the random connections you brought in – like The Bronx Tale and the song (with which I’m unfamiliar) – this seemed to tie into your theme as well.

    One thing that fascinates me is how Munch’s extremely idiosyncratic vision, disturbing because it was so , became a cliche, and even a commodity with the marketing of those “Scream” masks – at which point it regained some of its horror (albeit in a semi-ironic way) in a new, more digestible context. Then I remember there was a copycat murder near where I grew up – not that I’m saying movies “cause” crimes, but to trace threads like these is undoubtedly fascinating and occasionally disturbing. The old “butterfly flaps its wings and causes typhoon halfway around the globe” conundrum. Everything’s connected…but the ways in which everything’s connected only make us more aware of the great leaps in time, space, and experience involved with those “connections.”

    One film which seems to attempts to tackle this stream-of-consciousness-with-a-common-motif idea is The Red Violin: I loved it when I saw it in theaters as a teenager. On a more recent viewing, on a cropped VHS (a screener no less, with titles running across the screen every 10 minutes) it didn’t seem as effective; more like a digest version of a bigger story – but the conditions of my viewing suggest, that may not have been a definitive re-reading.

    Anyway, though-provoking stuff. Thanks!

    Thanks, MovieMan (Joel)! Yeah…it’s funny how things can take on a life of their own…I bet Munch would’ve never imagined what Wes Craven would do with his iconic image. I recall watching The Red Violin…very interesting movie…following the life of an “object” as it went from owner to owner — showing that interconnectedness. Thanks for stopping by and reading. –DHS

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