Only parts of Judge Erich Asperschlager are 1/6 scale.
"I built Marwencol for me, for my therapy, and now it's, like, everybody's."
There are many kinds of documentaries. Some are sprawling, agenda-driven films about big topics like the environment or labor reform. Others focus on smaller stories, using the experiences of a few to illustrate basic truths about humanity. Still others hide the filmmaking process, treating the camera as a detached observer. Some documentaries, though, are so intimate that they defy classification—telling a story so personal that watching it feels like an invasion of someone's private home. Or their fictional town.
Welcome to Marwencol.
Facts of the Case
In April of 2000, Mark Hogancamp was severely beaten by five men outside a bar in Kingston, NY. The attack put Mark in a coma for nine days, required reconstructive surgery, and resulted in brain damage so severe that he had no memories from before the attack. After 40 days, Mark was released from the hospital, with enough assistance to regain his ability to speak and write, but not to cope with the trauma. So Mark devised his own therapy.
He constructed a 1/6-scale, WWII-era Belgian town he called Marwencol. He populated it with dolls dressed in period costumes and uniforms, and named them after people he knew. The town and its inhabitants were his refuge—a place where he could write, act out, and photograph a narrative where his doll was a heroic soldier, and where sadistic SS met the kind of retribution Mark couldn't inflict on his attackers in the real world. It stayed Mark's personal project until the day a local photographer saw his pictures and shared them with a magazine editor friend. The meeting led to a New York gallery exhibition of Mark's work, pushing him out of his backyard and into the public eye.
Mark Hogancamp's story is heartbreaking. Whatever success he's had in the art world, his characters and their adventures are fiercely personal. Marwencol is the extension of his damaged mind—a private diary made of plastic, wood, and dirt. Although the photographs he takes of his town are beautiful, it's nothing compared to the story behind them.
That story isn't simple to understand or explain. Director Jeff Malmberg gives Hogancamp full rein to talk about his life. Since Mark is still putting the pieces together for himself, Marwencol takes a meandering route through his story. Although the film is divided into sections, there's no real narrative apart from the attack at the beginning, and Mark's Manhattan art show at the end. The rest is mostly footage of Mark at home and working on his town, interspersed with interview fragments and photographs.
Every once in a while, Malmberg stumbles on some nugget that transcends the routine of Mark's life—aspects of his story that beg for more screentime. We learn that the attack not only left Mark unable to remember what happened before he was hospitalized (reducing his first marriage, for instance, to a stack of snapshots taken on his wedding day) but also that he went from clinically depressed alcoholic before to teetotaler after. We hear briefly about the healthcare system that failed Mark, prematurely cutting him loose and forcing him to create his own kind of therapy. We see a brief montage of the tortured pictures Mark drew in the years before the attack, but no one relates Mark's early art to his Marwencol photographs. There are interviews with Mark's friends, mom, coworker, a former roommate, and a woman he had a crush on whose rebuff led him to kill off her Marwencol counterpart. But don't expect Malmberg to spend any time exploring those relationships. His focus is on Marwencol and its creator, with little interest in answering questions that come up along the way.
Marwencol is artfully made. Malmberg approximates living in Mark's shoes by jumping from one topic to the next, lazily circling until he gets to the heart of Mark's story. There are no easy answers or pat narrative. Malmberg puts all of his filmmaking eggs in Mark's frayed basket. The result is engrossing and fragmented. Marwencol is a unique film experience, but it's only a peek into Mark's world. My guess is he'd probably want it that way.
Marwencol is a mixed bag on Blu-ray. The bulk of the footage was shot using a low-quality handheld video camera. It does what it needs to, but the soft image isn't even DVD quality. You'll be happy to have the added resolution, though, during the montages of Mark's photographs. They really are amazing, and Blu-ray brings all their miniature detail and vivid color to life. It seems odd to recommend a Blu-ray for still photos, but Marwencol is that kind of movie. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track isn't a powerhouse, but it delivers the dialogue and period music soundtrack in a mix that's well-balanced and crisp.
If Marwencol left you wanting, there's plenty more in the bonus features:
• The longest is a collection of deleted scenes (19:02), seventeen in all. Given how short the movie is, I'm not sure why these were taken out. They provide lots of good detail and anecdotes, including information about Mark's reconstructive surgery, his meeting with the woman who found him after the attack, and the story of how Marwencol got its name.
• Next up, eight "More Stories from Marwencol" (11:41), told in photos with accompanying narrative.
• "Mark's Reaction to the Film" (2:32)—filmed immediately after Mark's first viewing of the movie.
• "Mark's 'Red Carpet' Premiere" (1:01)—a very brief scene of Mark outside the theater, setting up a scale model of the women of Marwencol walking the red carpet at the premiere.
• Photo Gallery—a collection of 30 of Mark's photographs, accessible via remote.
Also included with the Blu-ray are a written introduction to the film by critic Elvis Mitchell that's more about his friend Malmberg than Hogancamp; and a collectible mini-print of one of Mark's photographs.
Jeff Malmberg is a talented filmmaker and editor, but Marwencol works often in spite of his style. Although the film ignores some of the most interesting aspects of Mark Hogancamp's story, what Malmberg shows us is still well worth watching. The victim of a brutal attack, Mark brought himself back with a most unique art therapy. That we get to share the results of that therapy with him is a great gift, and one that should be treasured.
Visit Marwencol if you have the chance. Not guilty!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Guild
Review content copyright © 2011 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.