Cooked Powder and Child Labor
Arguably the last half-century's least seen, least documented, and most marginalized filmmaking master, ex-Englishman-cum-global-exile Peter Watkins has finally emerged on the public radar as a titanic figure to be reckoned with, a slow burn that began when his six-hour epic La Commune (Paris, 1871) began touring world festivals in 2001 after being, typically, dumped by the French TV networks for which it was made. Up to then, and having endured every form of media and bureaucratic blackout conceivable, Watkins was famous here only for Edvard Munch (1974), a massive, Norwegian-made historical tapestry that is an easily declared champion in the Greatest Artist Biopic Ever drag.
Watkins is an unbuyable radical, and so this film—now restored with an additional 46 minutes of fabric and context, topping off the duration at 220 minutes—is much more than a film about the troubled icon-artist and his controversial work. Watkins's signature methodologies take hold: He is the inventor of the dead-serious historical mock-doc, and the film is shot, edited, and narrated like a record of the moment (1880s–1890s), with the actors/characters often staring, warily, into the camera, and being interviewed talking-heads-style. As is de rigueur for Watkins, the cast is completely amateur, and actors are often called upon to speak their minds out of character. But the film also foregrounds Industrial Age class injustice, including the small matter of pervasive child labor, so relentlessly that Munch himself (personified by Eric Allum) often disappears into the social weft, and the film's angry gravity and smoky visuals (cinematography by Odd Geir Saether) create an indelible period ambience. As it is, the fidelity to Munch's technical achievements is breathtaking—you learn here how to make and print etchings by hand, how to make woodcuts, how to apply acid and cooked powder to printing plates, etc.
Munch's visionary struggle and tumultuous public reception (often in the form of official censorship) obviously echo Watkins's own; for such an exhaustively historical film, it bears the anger lines of a personal outcry. This restoration, and the arsenal of Watkins and Munch programming and text that comes with it, amounts to one of the year's DVD events. Grab the whole Watkins box, and get the 4.5-hour 1994 film on Strindberg, The Freethinker, as a prize.
New to DVD this week: Eastern Promises (Universal, $29.98), The Kingdom (Universal, $29.98), and Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection (Facets, $39.95).