Indie Film Review – Marwencol
In April of 2000, at age 38, Mark Hogencamp was attacked outside of a bar by five young men, and beaten so severely that he spent nine days in a coma and another month in the hospital after waking up. He had brain damage to the point where he had to relearn basic skills like how to walk and write. His memory from before the attack was gone. Marwencol (2010), directed by Jeff Malmberg, follows Mark as he uses an unusual hobby to work through the reality of his situation and develop what he refers to as “this new life, this second life I was given.”
Using dolls such as G.I. Joes and Barbies, and elaborate sets built from plywood and props from a local hobby shop, Mark constructs a town he dubs Marwencol. At about 14 minutes into the film, he describes some miniature props: “Everything’s real,” he says, as he demonstrates the movable parts of a gun that is the size of a small paperclip. By this time, the viewer has come to understand Mark’s situation enough to absorb the broader truth of that statement.
Located in Belgium during World War II, Marwencol is inhabited by a vast variety of characters, many of whom are modeled on Mark’s family, friends, and acquaintances. One doll represents him. The intricate storylines that the denizens of the town live are described by Mark in the most matter-of-fact detail. These descriptions are oddly enthralling; they demonstrate the sort of unapologetic imagination adults are not encouraged to use, filtered through the cigarette smoke and almost-cynicism of someone who is actually very much an adult who has been through hell.
As someone who values stories in a deep, unshakable way, Mark’s self-invented therapy is fascinating and beautiful to me. He constructs for himself a manageable, controllable world, yet his characters seem to have an obscure autonomy, taking on wills of their own. (Writers of fiction may relate to this feeling.) And as the doll who represents him has adventures fighting Nazis and wooing a beautiful woman, Mark is startlingly honest about wishing he could have that kind of life in reality. He refers to the dolls as alter egos, and the appeal of being able to have an alter ego to act out your unattainable fantasies will not be lost on many people. The real people who find themselves with alter egos in the town are sometimes amused, sometimes bemused, and always supportive.
Mark also takes gorgeous, striking photos of the tableaux he creates within Marwencol. We see many, many of these throughout the film, and still I wanted to see more. The editor of Esopus, an art magazine, sees the photos and becomes interested. This starts Mark on a trajectory that he may not be ready for—to think of his creation as art, rather than as just his escape.
The film passes rhythmically back and forth between telling of Mark’s daily life and following the developments in Marwencol. There are times when I wanted to linger in illuminating moments in Mark’s life, or be further immersed in the fictional world, but perhaps this kind of sentiment would have clashed with the straightforward personality of our subject. Malmberg also uses the documentary trick of withholding a piece of information so as to have an affecting second-half reveal, a technique which I’m torn about being employed here. Mark demonstrates so much honesty throughout the film that it seemed unnecessary to hold this particular thing as a secret to be revealed to the viewer. Still, these are minor questions, that perhaps only give me pause because once I started in with this story, I wanted to keep knowing more.
Marwencol is both a fascinating story of an unconventional man and a stimulating exploration of the appeal of stories themselves. It is very much worth seeking out. You can visit the official website to find the schedule of theaters where it will play soon. It begins in Seattle at the Varsity Theater on November 26.
Final Grade: A-