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IFFR 2023 Limelight

Henrik M Dahlsbakken • Director of Munch

“We don't know the man behind the art, even though, not only for Norway, he is a big part of our cultural heritage"


- We talked to the director about the big gap that exists between our knowledge of the art and of the life of Edvard Munch

Henrik M Dahlsbakken • Director of Munch
(© Eirik Evjen)

The highly intriguing biopic about painter Edvard Munch by Norwegian director Henrik M Bahlsbakken has been chosen as the opening film of the 2023 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Munch [+see also:
film review
interview: Henrik M Dahlsbakken
film profile
is a complex work offering a portrait of a very fascinating character. We spoke to the director about his relationship with his protagonist and about his artistic concept for the film.

Cineuropa: Why did you want to do this biopic about Edvard Munch?
Henrik M. Bahlsbakken: Most people in Norway have a relationship to his art and his paintings, but most don't know very much about his life. I myself learned recently about the fascinating life he had and the difficult choices he made. We don't know the man behind the art, even though, not only for Norway, he is a big part of our cultural heritage.

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You have four different time periods in the film. How did you develop the concept for each of them?
I was on holiday in Spain, lying on the beach, thinking of the film and I started reading about Munch. Then, the idea of choosing these four time periods struck me like lightning. The concept was that four different actors should play Munch and also I wanted to find four different writers to write each of the parts. So actually one film, but with different parts interweaving, one film with four different kind of voices in it. I direct all of them. It felt very right to me, because if you try to understand Munch, you need to see his whole life. His different life choices affected him and his life. The different visuals for the different time periods should emphasise his states of mind.

Why did you choose to tell the story in a non-chronological way?
I wanted to use the different time periods as a contrast to each other and to mirror them. I used the old Munch as a shell, as a frame, by starting and ending with him. I tried to make a structure with the other parts, which follows the emotions of Munch and connects the parts to each other. For me, it is similar to a visit in a gallery in which you see different paintings and you understand step by step the logic of the hanging concept. I think the film builds up towards the ending, it gets a bigger impact on the audience when it's not told straightforward. It's like a puzzle. 

What were the sources you used?
Most of his letters, as well as his diary and other papers he wrote have been digitalised and are available online. His own work was very important for my research. There are also a lot of biographies of him. What was also important was to use our senses. I think Munch is still very relevant today, his emotions, his life choices and his paintings say something about all of us. He transmits joy, love, anxiety. Through his paintings, we tried to understand him. We discussed him a lot together, with the writers as well as with the actors. We realised we could relate to him. And since I wanted to do a film for a modern audience, it was important to keep that in mind, and use ourselves to make it relevant. The film should resonate with us.

Did your view of Munch change during the making of the film?
Of course, during the process we had to skip some interesting parts of his life. It was not possible to tell all of his history. What had a huge impact on me, were the choices he made when he was in the clinic. He had to choose between dying of alcoholism or lying. And choosing to lie meant that he would spend all his time making art. He had to be dedicated. He couldn't go after women, for example, or distract himself with anything else. And he just painted all the time, he was focused. He lived very isolated. I kind of admire these kinds of people who are able to be that focused. It's a very rare thing and it says a lot about him. It's a bit sad, but also beautiful.

What would you like the audience to particularly retain about the film?
It's not only the story of Munch – the film describes the mind of an artist. Munch also shows us how brave he was, expressing his emotions and dealing with his mental illness, which he expressed in his paintings. It's very unique, especially for the time he lived in. I hope it's possible to come to a bigger understanding of his art, by understanding more about his life.

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