Revisiting Jeff Malmberg’s Stunning Directorial Debut
One of the more downright inspirational documentary films is Marwencol, the story of accidental artist Mark Hogencamp. After being targeted and beaten outside of a club one night, Hogencamp came out of a coma with severe physical and mental damage. His personal attempt at recuperation was to construct a 1/6th scale reproduction of a small WWII era town in his backyard, dubbed Marwencol, and photograph the happenings of that town. After years of building and story-telling on his own, his pictures are finally seen outside of a small group of confidants, and he is offered a gallery show.
Marwencol is Jeff Malmberg’s directorial debut, and, while it may feel like a debut, the film transcends some generic editing and pacing due to its fascinating subject, and Hogencamp’s enthusiastic involvement in the project. Hogencamp is constantly aware of the documentary, and in this way, Marwencol sometimes feels like long, frillier Art-21. What makes it stand apart is that Hogencamp isn’t talking about his art, he is talking about his therapy, and in this way, he reveals much more about himself than perhaps he even intended. Not to say that Malmberg isn’t an artist, whether he thinks of himself as one or not: his photographs are astounding, especially given his lack of training or extensive equipment.
Through the world of Marwencol, Hogencamp acts out his anger, fears, and aspirations. In his world, the attack very transparently becomes torture administered by The SS in a chapel–but with a different end. In Marwencol, the townspeople (often based on acquaintances of Hogencamp) are there to kill the SS invaders, or to turn back the clock with their time machines. Hogencamp very freely and openly blends the two worlds–as when marrying the doll version of his neighbor he has a crush on–which, as an art curator later states, makes his work refreshingly unironic.
We all have our own anxieties, and we all have our own way of dealing with them, and by his exemplary, if tragic, model, Hogencamp is easy to relate to and project onto. And a place like Marwencol, where the only rule is to not hate (although acts of retributive violence are encouraged), is a place we can all hope for.