Despite its title, Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch is more than just a biographical film about the painter of the famous Scream. Munch's tortured life story, from his sickly childhood to his adult affair with a married woman, figure prominently in this fragmentary, elliptical masterpiece, but these dramas are far from the film's only subject. For one thing, the film is one of the best chronicles of the art of painting that has ever been committed to celluloid. Has there ever been a film that engages more thoroughly or more analytically with the physicality and texture of paint on canvas? Watkins lovingly pans across the surfaces of Munch's paintings, lingering on the scratched-out areas and dense layers of overpainting that indicate Munch's obsessive, often violent process of creation. This recursive creativity, with Munch revisiting the same canvases over the course of many months and compulsively worrying at their details, is mirrored in the film's aesthetics. The chronology is frequently disrupted by scenes that recur over and over again, primal scenes from Munch's youth or the short-lived affair that haunted his entire life. As the film goes on, its linear narrative is increasingly complicated by such diversions and the continual looping back that gives equal emphasis to all times at once.
Watkins injects further variety into the narrative through the use of faux-documentary techniques, as a narrator provides commentary on Munch's life, surroundings, and painting process. Most importantly for a political filmmaker like Watkins, the film also makes every effort to position Munch in the broader context of the social and political upheavals of his time. One of Watkins' theses is that Munch was an artist tragically ahead of his time, reflecting a more unfettered, emotionally honest, and deeply personal artistic expression, as though he belonged to a much freer era than the one he was born into. As such, the film frequently diverts from Munch's story in order to document problems of social class, women's rights, and sexual oppression and repression. The film is a revolutionary form of biography that resolutely refuses to limit itself to a simple chronological accounting of events. Not only does Watkins shatter chronology in order to communicate emotional truths rather than dry objective facts, but the film expands beyond the immediate details of Munch's life to explore his social context and the ways in which creativity is shaped by political realities.