Edvard Munch’s best-known work, “The Scream,” has been endlessly referenced or parodied – even in “The Simpsons.” But the painter himself, who passed away in 1944, remains an enigma.
“His art is famous, but not the artist. And I wanted to tell a story about the artist. His life is the main focus here,” says director Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken, whose “Munch” has been selected as opening film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
He never intended to make a typical biopic, however. “Most of them are quite… boring. Munch evolved a lot, in terms of how he lived, but also his art and his motives. It was necessary to find another way.”
With the help of four different screenwriters, each focusing on a different period in his life, he cast four actors as Munch: Alfred Ekker Strande, Mattis Herman Nyquist, Ola G. Furuseth and even Anne Krigsvoll.
“The hardest part was making sure that all these parts, despite their distinctive styles, still fit together. I wanted these writers – and actors – to bring their own voice to the film,” he says.
“Munch didn’t have this one big moment when he just ‘found himself.’ He was finding himself his entire life,” he says.
The writers on the film were Fredrik Høyer, Nyquist, Gine Cornelia Pedersen and Eivind Sæther.
“I read a lot of his diaries,” says Høyer, who focused on the early years of the painter. It portrays “the young Munch as one of the multitudes of human lives that have existed throughout time, not the celebration of an outstanding genius – that’s what interested me.”
Nyquist, taking on the artist’s life in Berlin, was stunned by his “all-absorbing and total” dedication to work, while Pedersen dug into his stay in a psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen.
“I am a Munch-nerd,” she admits. “He was such a sensitive person and I could relate to him in many ways. If it was up to me, I would have been on set every day, I would have gone to every meeting, but I managed to contain myself. I don’t think it would have helped the movie,” she laughs.
“To write a part of the script and not knowing how it will fit in with others was both concerning and highly entertaining,” adds Sæther, also praising the editing team.
In his part of the story, elderly Munch lives on the outskirts of Oslo, dedicated to work until German occupiers literally knock on his door.
Sæther says: “All that seems to matter to him is his legacy. He fears the war will destroy everything he has built. When he died, it was basically just paintings and paintings, a piano, lots of mouse excrements and twenty-something pairs of painting gloves.”
“He was one of the most productive artists ever,” underlines Dahlsbakken. “As he says in the film, he can’t have kids or a family because his genes are ‘toxic.’ I don’t think it was the whole truth. I guess he had to explain to himself why he chose to spend his entire life making art. It was a big commitment and not many people would make it today.”
While Dahlsbakken’s approach echoes Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” with six actors – including Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett – playing Bob Dylan, he sees his story as more “straightforward,” he says.
“When I first came up with this idea, back in 2018, I haven’t seen it yet. Later, its concept became an inspiration.”
But making Munch relatable, especially to a younger audience, was also on his mind. Which is why, in an interesting twist, he moved his stint in Berlin to contemporary times.
“I talked to my friends about it: ‘How would it feel to meet Munch today, in 2023?’ Also, it’s much cheaper [to shoot] this way,” he jokes.
“We had to be respectful and do it with love and courage, but we are telling our story about Munch. There is nobody who knows the whole truth – the truth has been dead for 80 years. It made this whole process feel safe, in a way. And playful.”
“Munch” was produced by The Film Company and backed by Viaplay, with New York-based Juno Films handling North American distribution rights.