THE FREETHINKER (Peter Watkins, 1994)

Brilliant Swedish playwright August Strindberg, whose late expressionistic A Dream Play (1902) and “The Ghost Sonata” (1907) are among my favorite twentieth-century plays, appears as a minor character in Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1974). Made for Swedish television (which refuses to air it), Watkins’s 4½-hour Fritänkaren is all about Strindberg.
     Watkins employs the highly flexible and imaginative method that would reappear in his masterpiece, La Commune (Paris 1871). It consists of improvised dramatic scenes, actors reading to us things that their characters wrote, confrontations between actors-as-their-characters and contemporary stand-ins for us, archival photographs, screens of orienting historical script, and other techniques that likewise tend to conflate documentary and fiction. Juggling four time-lines (including Strindberg’s boyhood in what he regarded as a harsh home populated with too many children), the film places Strindberg’s life and art in a social and political context, while also showing how his life and art contributed to the development of that context. Bits and pieces of scenes reappear, each time resonating differently, more expansively; our depth of understanding Strindberg, from Watkins’s point of view, keeps growing—a point that Watkins himself has refuted, obstinately claiming that the film is open to each viewer’s own interpretation. However, one appreciates the filmmaker’s accurate point that Freethinker opposes the conventional tack of packaging a film so that it tells us, blatantly or surreptitiously, how we are supposed to respond and what to think.
     One coup: Watkins succeeds in showing and explaining the honest co-existence of public feminism and private misogyny in Strindberg. One disappointment: the film notes but fails to explain Strindberg’s anti-Semitism.
     Fascinating: the Swedish monarch’s assault from the Right on democratic stirrings while also funding radical publications that assaulted these stirrings from the Left!
     Primarily, though, The Freethinker interests rather than fascinates.


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