Since the early 1960s, Peter Watkins has explored film’s potential as a medium of communication and catharsis
I’m standing in the first room of the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, just six days after The Scream (1895) has become the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Before me is a quote from the artist, printed in italics on the wall: ‘The camera cannot compete with brush and palette – as long as it cannot be used in Heaven and Hell.’ It is here as a motto for the work in the next room: the now legendary ‘Frieze of Life’ paintings of the 1890s, in which the agonies of Edvard Munch’s own psychological hell are so compellingly evoked. People travel from all over the world to look at the frieze, but it’s this line about the limited potential of the camera that intrigues me, because it’s not Munch himself that has brought me to Oslo, but one man’s attempt to render the considerable agonies and occasional ecstasies of his life into cinematic form.
I am, in fact, killing time before attending an evening event at the Office of Contemporary Art (OCA). ‘Edvard Munch: A Film’s Legacy’, as the discussion is titled, will see British film director Peter Watkins reunited with the cast and crew of his masterpiece, Edvard Munch (1974). I make arts documentaries for a living and I think this film is one of the greatest artist biopics ever made. Other filmmakers, such as Ken Russell and Derek Jarman, have attempted to transcend biography and analysis and re-create an artist’s subjective vision, but few have been as successful as Watkins. For more than three and a half hypnotic hours, we are exposed to the key events of Munch’s life, the creation of his greatest works and – most importantly – the motivations and often painful emotions behind both.
Watkins is, first and foremost, a political filmmaker. At the heart of his vision is a belief that television and film production should not be used as instruments of power by media professionals, but as facilitators of communication and catharsis for both participants and audience. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Edvard Munch is the compelling performance by a large cast of non-professional volunteers, most of whom responded to an advertisement Watkins placed in the local Oslo press. Thirty-nine years since filming took place, I want to discover what effect participating in the film had on their lives. These sorts of reunions are important opportunities for Watkins’s creed to be validated by people other than himself.
How Watkins came to make a film about Munch is the story of one man’s rapid fall from grace within the film industry. His directorial vision began as a collection of hunches and innovative ideas and has evolved over the decades into a militant dogma. Yet there is a remarkable consistency throughout. In one of his earliest amateur shorts, The Forgotten Faces (1961), the 26-year-old Watkins re-created the 1956 Hungarian uprising on the backstreets of Canterbury. It’s shot like a newsreel documentary, using local actors and volunteers: the idea being that all involved, cast and crew alike, would learn more about the failed uprising through the process of making a film about it. Watkins’s most recent film, La commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), does something similar with the legendary French insurrection, although in greater depth and at considerably greater length (just under six hours).
Through sheer bravado and commitment, The Forgotten Faces works – Canterbury and its inhabitants stand in convincingly for Budapest and its revolutionaries – and resulted in Watkins being taken under the wing of legendary broadcaster Huw Wheldon in the BBC’s documentary department. This led to his first feature-length production, Culloden (1964), a re-creation of the 1746 Jacobite uprising in Scotland as captured by a time-travelling news team. Watkins used local volunteers, many of whom were directly descended from the Culloden Highlanders, as his cast. The fact that Culloden is set in 1746 doesn’t stop its characters acknowledging the presence of a film crew. ‘King George II is both an usurper and a tyrant,’ says ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie, direct to camera, like a political candidate on election night. ‘I know that once victory is mine, the people of England will welcome me.’ Later, he’s seen fleeing for France while the English army systematically murders all involved in his ill-fated rebellion.
There are few obvious influences behind these early films. A little Italian neo-realism perhaps, a dash of pre-war British documentary (Watkins trained under filmmakers who had worked for producer John Grierson in the 1930s) and an admiring nod to French nouvelle vague spontaneity. But mostly Watkins was parodying and undermining the already rigid formats of television. He suggests, through the paradoxical conceit of a film crew covering an 18th-century battle, that the ‘objectivity’ of news programming is a stylistic gloss, often concealing simplification, prejudice and plain untruth.
In 1964, Watkins was rewarded for the success of Culloden with the chance to make something for the BBC’s ‘The Wednesday Play’. This innovative drama strand, which ran from the mid-to-late 1960s, gave a platform for promising writers and directors such as Dennis Potter and Ken Loach to experiment and communicate with a large audience. And this is where things start to unravel, because Watkins – shocked by how reluctant the media industry was to comment on Britain’s rapid nuclear armament and growing Cold War tension – decided to make a film about what would happen if Britain found itself in a nuclear war. Watkins didn’t just want to obliquely suggest what the consequences would be, he wanted to graphically show it: melted faces, burnt-out retinas, radioactive poisoning, food riots, mass burials and all. In one of the last, post-apocalyptic scenes, a priest manually spins the turntable of a record player to entertain sick refugees with the warped, distorted sound of a Christmas carol.
Alongside these dramatic imaginings are printed extracts from government pamphlets; maps showing Britain’s prime targets; and ‘vox-pops’ with ordinary Britons, revealing widespread ignorance about the nuclear threat. According to one caption, two Catholic bishops say the Church should encourage people to accept the nuclear bomb as morally justifiable as long as it is ‘clean’ and of a good family. Watkins then cuts to a shot of a child screaming in pain after being blinded by the explosion of just such a bomb.
You have to wonder if Watkins really believed during shooting that any television broadcaster in the mid-1960s would show anything as unremittingly alarmist, terrifying and disturbing as The War Game (1965). After much internal hand-wringing, the BBC cancelled transmission and, aside from a few limited cinema screenings, the film remained largely unseen for 20 years.
The War Game debacle was a huge personal disappointment, but it gave Watkins notoriety, allowing him to leave the BBC and embark on a feature film career. Privilege (1967) is a characteristically uncompromising and surprisingly witty exposé of the Swinging Sixties. Paul Jones (of British rock band Manfred Mann) plays Steven Shorter, a pop singer whose every move is controlled by an establishment junta determined to lead the nation’s youth to conformity through the very instruments (rock music, flamboyant fashion) of its rebellion. Shorter’s hits include ‘Set Me Free’ (later covered by Patti Smith on her 1978 album Easter) and ‘I’ve Been a Bad, Bad Boy’, but soon his band are headlining stadium gigs during Christian Crusade Week, performing rock ‘n’ roll versions of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and 'Jerusalem'.
Privilege was a box-office flop and received some bad reviews, so in the same way he’d left the BBC, Watkins now left the UK in search of funding and creative freedom. The Gladiators (1969), made in Sweden, is a dystopian parable in which global powers televise deadly ‘international peace games’ to satiate mankind’s natural taste for violence. It sounds rather gripping, but Jean-Luc Godard’s influence is at work here and Watkins chops about the narrative making it difficult to identify with the characters or ever forget that what we are watching is more ideological polemic than story. In one scene, in which we find ourselves lingering with a group of terrified young soldiers long enough to feel some suspense about their fate, a god-like narration breaks the spell: ‘It may be of interest to know that of the eight young people in this room, four will shortly die and the remainder will continue to play the game as hard as they can.’
Finding it increasingly difficult to get financial backing, Watkins worked on a shoestring to make his one and only film in the US. Punishment Park (1971) is a hysteria-filled protest against American imperialism. It follows a group of anti-war activists who have been unlawfully arrested by Nixon’s government on suspicion of inciting insurrection. After a kangaroo court trial in the desert, they choose between decades of imprisonment or total freedom if they are willing to try their luck in a deadly training exercise against rookie cops in aviator shades. The brutality that is unleashed seems ridiculously implausible until you realize that many of the film’s premises, along with its iconic images of unaccountable officers standing astride huddled prisoners, found realization at Guantánamo Bay over 30 years later.
Punishment Park is the work of a director so marginalized, so beleaguered by criticism, you almost wonder if he’s deliberately trying to scare off the backers. But something else was going in Watkins’s life – something very different from anything he had done before, yet somehow in keeping with it all – that would see his lowest ebb result in his greatest work. While editing The Gladiators in Stockholm, Watkins had travelled to Oslo for a screening of Culloden at the Munch Museum. As he wandered through the museum, he discovered a deep affinity with Munch’s life and work. Like Munch, Watkins had tried something new in his chosen art form and met critical and commercial failure. And, like Munch, this had resulted in a peripatetic lifestyle, travelling from country to country in search of acceptance and support. Both produced work that was essentially pessimistic about humanity and there were even technical similarities: the characters in Munch’s paintings often stare out at the viewer and Watkins had been using a similar technique, breaking down ‘the fourth wall’ by having his characters stare into the camera lens, ever since Culloden. Watkins applied to Norwegian TV (NRK) for funding to make a television film on Munch and eventually got the backing he needed.
It’s hard to describe Edvard Munch to anyone who hasn’t seen it because there’s very little one can compare it to outside of Watkins’s own oeuvre. There’s the use of volunteers, rather than actors, delivering unusual but highly compelling performances. There’s the constant shifting in genre from observational documentary (with talking-head interviews) to costume drama to arts programme complete with Kenneth Clarke-esque commentary. There’s the resistance to narrative linearity, with scenes from different stages of Munch’s life intercutting one another, some even placed randomly during the editing process. There’s the way the characters constantly stare straight into the lens, seeking direct connection with the viewer. And there’s the multi-layered and non-literal soundtrack, which lets the sounds of one scene bleed into the next or recur apparently unmotivated later in the film. None of these breaches in convention are gratuitous: Watkins made the decision to make a film about Munch in a Munchian way and his conclusions, in this sense, seem entirely logical.
Thirty-nine years on, I sit in the auditorium of OCA as Watkins and the cast and crew of Edvard Munch reunite in public for the first time. There can’t be more than 50 people in the room. I spot Geir Westby sitting in the back row, still recognizable as the startling and handsome youth who played Munch. Otherwise, it’s hard to guess who played which character. Aside from those involved in the original production, there’s a smattering of representatives from the press, other arts institutions and a few young cineastes.
Watkins, now rather deaf, opens by apologizing for using the language of ‘imperial England’. He is 76 years old, but hasn’t mellowed with age. He talks slowly but confidently. When he pauses, which he often does, the audience remains respect-fully quiet. He explains the resistance he encountered from NRK to the idea of using volunteers rather than professional actors. ‘I was told I couldn’t work here because Norwegians would never act in a film like this. This was professional advice from Norwegian Television – you know, just to get me going. “Oh no, we Norwegians, we’re too shy.” So I said, “Thank you very much for the advice,” and we put an advertisement in the local press. Something like: “Are you interested in being in a film on Edvard Munch?” Six hundred people came!’
At first, Watkins carries the story alone, but gradually the cast and crew join in. I’m struck by how many (in keeping with NRK’s analysis of the Norwegian temperament) claim to have been ‘shy’. In an industry hinged around exhibitionism, Watkins seems to have deliberately and perversely hunted out those to whom that term least applies. In fact, Edvard Munch is a film whose two ‘stars’ had little interest in appearing in it or, for that matter, in acting at all. Westby, who makes an unforgettable Munch, reluctantly attended one of the last auditioning days after being repeatedly cajoled by a girlfriend determined he should make something of himself. Gro Fraas (not present this evening), as Munch’s lover, Mrs Heiberg, was simply accompanying a friend to the audition but drew Watkins’s attention as she stood staring disinterestedly out the window. Watkins wasn’t looking for acting talent, but a real reticence and vulnerability that he could capture on camera. As Gro Jarto, who played the artist’s mother, Laura Catherine Munch, tells the audience: ‘You talk about the shame and shyness, but Peter wants that. That’s what you’re in it for. When he was casting, I remember he said, “Do you have a big sorrow in your life?” I thought, “My God, he’s seen it.” And I said “yes” and got the part. He saw into us and used it.’
With a cast finally in place, filming was able to begin. But, unlike most productions, nobody was given the script – not that there was a script in any traditional sense to give. At the back of the OCA auditorium, in a glass cabinet, is the original shooting document and you can see how Watkins – determined to flout cinematic narrative – wrote scenes, cut them up, then pasted the fragments in a non-linear order (not dissimilar, as OCA curator Pablo Lafuente points out, to William Burroughs’s cut-up novels). Instead, the cast members were simply told to bone up on their subject. Gunnar Skjetne, who played Munch’s brother, says to Watkins: ‘I remember you very clearly saying that I should read this compendium and I should know the story, but never remember what I should say: it should be spontaneous. I was 19. You were working in a very alternative way.’
Eli Ryg, who played Munch’s friend, the artist Oda Lasson, recalls how Watkins told her to go to a library and read about Lasson and her times. This wasn’t just as background information because, as Ryg recounts, on the last day of filming Watkins sat her down in front of the camera and said simply, ‘Come on.’ He wanted her to talk about what it was like being a woman – not just in 1880s Oslo, but in the 1970s too. ‘There I was in the studio with all my colleagues surrounding me,’ says Ryg, ‘and I said: “Aren’t you going to interview me?” And Peter said, “Can’t you try to do it yourself?” And I think I spoke to camera for 12 minutes. It was a long, long monologue. And when everything was over, I was so nervous. Then they applauded and I was very relieved because I’d been thinking about what I was going to say for so many months.’ The impassioned monologue Ryg delivered about male–female relationships is peppered throughout the film.
This is not ‘improvisation’ in the way it is usually talked about in cinema. In the films of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, for example, the improvisation almost always occurs off screen as part of the rehearsal process. Or, on the rare occasions where it actually happens on camera, it is motivated by the director’s clear and specific instructions. But in Edvard Munch it is improvisation in the purest sense of the word. ‘I thought he was going to make the situation very clear,’ says Ryg, talking about the café scenes where Oslo’s intellectuals and Bohemians debate the issues of the day, ‘but he didn’t do that. He just put us by the table and said “camera” and started rolling. Without anything. Just you and the words you’ve been thinking out to yourself.’ The point of improvisation for most directors is to create greater depth in a character by finding out how they might respond to certain situations. But for Watkins, improvisation is a chance to go beyond the character – to find out what the performer really thinks. In this way, Watkins’s actors are neither characters nor themselves, but something in-between.
The discussion touches on the way Watkins had his cast continually stare into the camera lens. I never realized until now this was more than just a formal technique, but also served a practical purpose. Iselin von Hanno Bast, who played Dagny Juell, one of Munch’s lovers, recalls a scene where she dances flamboyantly and seductively amongst the men in a bohemian tavern. Being naturally shy (again, like so many of the cast), she felt extremely embarrassed, ‘But Peter kept saying: “Look into the camera,” which helped very much.’ It’s a way of returning the gaze: an act of empowerment that prevents the camera becoming a feared object and allows a non-professional performer to own a scene.
Behind all these techniques is Watkins’s desire to resist the professionalization of the media industry. ‘It was this quality, to work in that way,’ he recalls, ‘that has been my downfall as a filmmaker. When the film was repeated, I was told there was a meeting the following morning of the producers who all agreed that the film was a failure: people were not speaking the correct Norwegian of the period; they were amateurs, not professional actors.’ In fact, Edvard Munch, in both its original televised format and as a feature-length film, was admired by critics and audiences alike. (Ingmar Bergman reportedly called it a work of genius.) Despite this, Watkins was unable to secure another commission from NRK and his career trajectory continued towards increasing marginalization.
After the discussion, food and drink are laid out. Amidst the small talk, I’m struck by how many of the cast went on to have interesting careers: three became artists,one a Buddhist nun, another a politician. ‘It gave everybody confidence,’ Ryg says. And if this is true, that a Watkins film is a process that transforms a group of largely shy and troubled people into confident and expressive ones, then that alone is a great vindication of his art.
The next morning, I catch the commuter train to an Oslo suburb, where I hope to talk in more depth with the man who played Munch. There are two things you need to know about Westby. The first is that he’s not called Geir Westby anymore. The second is that he’s now a painter. Georg Lederer, as he is now called, meets me on the platform and we walk over to his studio for tea.
Lederer recalls the almost accidental manner in which he found himself at the Edvard Munch audition. He was 20 years old, working as a printer’s apprentice and studying fine art at night. His girlfriend kept telling him to audition and he finally went. Watkins gave him the part within half an hour of meeting him. Even after filming began, he hadno real idea what he had got himself in for. He felt a great deal of affinity with Munch.Not only was there a physical resemblance,but at the time he shared a lot of the artist’s neuroses. Watkins encouraged him to simply be himself on camera. ‘But you never foundit depressing?’ I ask. ‘Of course I did.It was depressing.’
Then the articles began appearing in the press about the financial overspend on the film. Journalists were waiting outside his door in the morning and people stopped him in the street. ‘I detested it,’ Lederer says. ‘You feel you have to act. It’s difficult to be yourself when people come up to you the whole time.’ Once the film was shown, this exposure only intensified, but Lederer was more interested in his own paintings: landscapes and still lifes that have nothing to do with the expressive angst of Munch. ‘I wanted to make my debut as a painter without being known as this person who played Munch. So I went and lived in France for a few years, changed my name, then came back to Norway as Georg Lederer. Even today, people are looking for Geir Westby wondering where he is.’
Lederer was unable to sit through the finished film and had no desire to act again. He was married for many years before he revealed to his wife he had once played Munch. It was only in the last decade, when he finally felt enough detachment from the process to sit through Edvard Munch that he realized he’d been part of something extraordinary. He ceased obsessing about his own performance and realized why Watkins had wanted to cast non-professionals. ‘I’m not an actor. You see Robert de Niro and you remember his lines. But because we are not actors you don’t see us, you see the film as a whole.’
Today, Lederer thinks Edvard Munch is a great film and recalls Watkins and his working method as inspiring. But it’s also clear he didn’t find his participation the emancipating, cathartic process of self-realization a Watkins film is thought to be. I ask him: ‘If you could go back 39 years to when you girlfriend said: “Audition for this,” would you go?’ ‘No, I don’t think so,’ he replies. ‘Each time the film is shown on television, it starts again: the journalists and everything. I don’t like these things. If people like my paintings and ask me about them, it is interesting, but if they’re always coming back to the film, then …’ He shrugs.
Watkins himself has some regrets about Edvard Munch, but of a very different nature. As he claimed the night before, he feels the film is not radical enough, resembling conventional cinema in too many ways. After Edvard Munch, Watkins made Resan (The Journey, 1987) – a 14-hour documentary about the nuclear threat; it was followed by a life of August Strindberg (The Freethinker, 1994) and La commune (Paris, 1871) (2000). Today, he lives with his family in France. It has been more than ten years since he made a film; most of his energy goes into his online written identification of a ‘media crisis’, a grim Debordian trap in which even resistance to capitalism in the media is a form of capitalist affirmation (pwatkins.mnsi.net/). But for me it’s precisely the perceived compromises in Edvard Munch, the use and misuse of traditional techniques to evoke the artist’s private hell, that makes it so unforgettable: the camera taken where once only the paintbrush dared.
First published in Issue 149