Somewhere between Belgium and the back of one man’s mind exists a surreal WWII outpost called Marwencol. Jeff Malmberg’s documentary opens with photos of this place, populated by 12-inch G.I. Joes and other playscale military figures (as well as a few loose Barbie dolls). They’re intriguing images, stripped of the irony or kitsch that typically accompany such art projects (think Todd Haynes’ “Superstar”), but not without humor — a credit to creator Mark Hogancamp’s imagination. But Hogancamp is a complex character, and “Marwencol” introduces the man in layers, creating an incomplete yet sympathetic portrait specialty auds and hipsters can agree on.
Malmberg wastes no time explaining how, a few years ago, Hogancamp was savagely beaten after leaving a bar in hometown Kingston, N.Y. The movie does not, however, ask why the attack happened, and it’s not until nearly an hour in that Malmberg reveals a secret side of Hogancamp’s personality in a casual, nonjudgmental twist.
The attack itself left Hogancamp brain-damaged and comatose, wiping most of his memories and forcing him to relearn the basics of getting by. Unhappy with the man he’d been, Hogancamp gave up drinking and retreated into a make-believe world of his own design: Marwencol, so named after three of his characters — Mark, Wendy and Colleen — set up shop in his backyard.
Because Hogancamp casts scale-model versions of his friends in his special town, the docu introduces its various interviewees by having them hold up their Marwencol alter egos. What makes Hogancamp’s hobby so fascinating is the way his narratives allow him to cope with the assault and intimidating everyday interactions. Hogancamp, who has a crush on a married neighbor, chooses to play out that impossible romance in Marwencol; characters who don’t behave are killed off by their vengeful master.
Most of the time, Hogancamp’s stories make sense only to himself, boiling over with Nazis, torture, time machines and all sorts of pulp-fiction devices. Malmberg does his best to fashion a few into elegant subplots to the events unfolding in Hogancamp’s real life, which is complicated enough with outsiders trying to convince him his work belongs in magazines and art galleries.
The trouble with much art therapy is how often outsiders contaminate the process, seeking public recognition for otherwise private patients, and “Marwencol” seems to echo this agenda. Hogancamp’s dramatic compositions pack all the punch of compelling comicbook panels, teasing the viewer’s imagination about the story unfolding before and after each captured moment, but there’s a reason — not just modesty — that he doesn’t consider himself an artist.
Military miniaturism may be eccentric, but it’s a relatively widespread pursuit, like model train building or Civil War re-enactment. “Marwencol” makes Hogancamp’s passion out to be more unusual than it is, trading on his trauma to elevate him above other hobbyists. The film serves as a fascinating exercise in character building, representing an identity formed in the editing room: What defines Hogancamp exactly? Is it the attack? His art? Or could it be a personality rebuilt from scratch? Malmberg applies stylistic and structural tricks (he puts off the “Who I Am” chapter until quite late) to create the most compelling portrait possible, reflecting a respectful but very different agenda from that of his subject.
Vintage songs and Super 8 footage help sell the alternate reality of Marwencol, presented in mesmerizing montages throughout.
Pic won the documentary jury prize at SXSW.