Marwencol: Art Imitates Life

Hello Dolly! 

Directed by Jeff Malmberg
Open Face, 83 mins. Unrated

Do we watch movies to see the same old thing, or to enter new worlds? If your answer is the second, Marwencol should go to the top of your video (or streaming) queue. The protagonist of Marwencol is Mark Hogancamp and the only ways to enter his world are vicariously through this film, or to suffer a brain injury as did he. Jeff Malmberg’s film about Hogancamp is labeled a documentary, but that’s mainly because we lack a better term. The word “documentary” generally infers recording of objective reality, but Hogancamp doesn’t live in that realm. For casual film viewers, documentary is often a synonym for didacticism and tedium—the sort of films that give you an excuse to go make a sandwich when they’re honored during the Academy Awards broadcast. Not this one. It’s quirky, bizarre, and as imbued with fantasy as The Lord of the Rings

Mark Hogancamp was just another slightly-down-on-his-luck guy living in shopworn Kingston, New York, until a few years ago when he was brutally beaten by a gang of local low-lifes. Hogancamp almost died from the assault and suffered permanent brain damage. He walks, talks, has fine motor skills, and usually makes sense, the key word being usually. Hogancamp’s brain sometimes sends signals that make him unemployable, bypass social conventions, and dump the filters required by “normal” society (whatever that might be). It’s taken him years to rebuild even to this level. Or should I say “build?” What Marwencol is mainly about is the fantasy world Hogancamp constructed as self therapy. Think a soap opera set in a complete World War II Belgian village built to 1/16th scale, with dolls playing the parts of people Hogancamp knows and with himself as the refashioned GI Joe hero of the ongoing drama. Not surprisingly, the Nazis are stand-ins for his attackers. Hogancamp acts out his real-life brutalization in numerous scenarios, often with women playing the role of avenging angels, and each clearly a projection of Hogancamp’s frustrated desire for female relationships. And we’re talking levels of detail on everything in the village of Marwencol; Hogancamp is as serious about how it and the characters look as any war reenactor or hobbyist.

One of the more charming aspects of the film is the reaction of Hogancamp’s friends and neighbors. He has a built-in support network that knows that he’s not entirely in touch with reality, but they nonetheless like him, encourage him, and even take part in his role-playing fantasy games. These include many of the women that know that he has sexualized them in doll form, but deem him harmless and are happy to help him work his way through his tortured past. The wildcard in the already-bizarre fantasy is director Jeff Malmberg, who stumbled upon the story and became fascinated with Hogancamp. He too is drawn into Marwencol, but mainly as an old-style documentarian recording the fantasy realm as if he were a World War II newsreel cameraman.

There are two twists to the story that are so startling that it would be unfair of me to reveal them. Let’s just say that one involves the New York art world’s reaction to photos produced by Malmberg, and that the second is a socially-frowned-upon Hogancamp personality trait that may have predated his attack. These add dimension, depth, and additional weirdness to what is already one of the most unique stories imaginable. It’s unlike anything you’d ever see at the local Cineplex. Watch it and I think you’ll agree that Marwencol is more compelling than any Hollywood paint-by-the-numbers action film and has more heart than the coronary unit at Johns Hopkins.—Rob Weir

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