Published: May 4, 2011
The Cinema Guild
Suspense is usually reserved for fiction flicks. In the skin of a documentary, suspense can provide a potent, often humanizing, drive to nonfiction—which is precisely what Jeff Malmberg accomplishes in his 2010 documentary Marwencol. It tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, a well-meaning—albeit peculiar—man who is savagely beaten one night in 2000 outside of a bar in Kingston, N.Y. The attack lands him in a coma for nine days, resulting in substantial brain damage. He wakes with a surgically reconstructed face and no memory of his prior life.
Discharged from the hospital after 40 days, Hogancamp gradually uncovers details about his divorce, alcoholism, and artistic penchant but is unable to afford the physical and psychological therapy needed to recover his past fully. Instead, he creates his own therapy: a one-sixth scale WWII-era town he names “Marwencol.” Built to reconstruct his shattered memory while fine-tuning his motor skills, Marwencol becomes an alternate reality that Hogancamp uses to cope with the anger and confusion of his post-trauma existence. In Marwencol, Hogancamp is the hero—a redesigned one-foot soldier doll with a telltale scar that mirrors his own facial damage.
The townsfolk in Marwencol are modeled after Hogancamp’s co-workers and friend—-including Malmberg—reimagined in era-appropriate regalia. For the documentary, following this narrative is essential. Early on, Malmberg depicts Marwencol’s discovery by Hogancamp, Wendy (a bartender), and Colleen (a former neighbor) and how their microcosmic utopia is ruined by the arrival of the beer-starved Nazi SS (manifestations of both Hogancamp’s alcoholism and his attackers). The payoff is a voyeuristic pull that is posited alongside the tapestry of Hogancamp’s tortured mind.
Malmberg reveals details slowly, only alluding to Hogancamp’s prior life. Quick cutaways show journal entries, a massive collection of women’s shoes, and old wedding photos but scenes with Hogancamp’s mother never probe into his personal history and the anticipated interview with his ex-wife never comes. The audience is placed at the same point Hogancamp was when he began his recovery and the analogy of Marwencol becomes the only available truth.
When Hogancamp’s artistry is noticed by Esopus magazine, the audience is swept into genuine concern. Soon, New York City galleries come calling, one of which strikes a deal with Hogancamp to exhibit his photos and models. The conflict forces him to decide whether to keep his therapy private or to re-expose himself to the world he’s been avoiding through Marwencol.
At this point in the movie, the motivation for the attack suddenly materializes. In a deeply harrowing twist, Malmberg reveals a particular obsession of Hogancamp’s that had only been hinted at previously. The rest of Hogancamp’s past remains speculation but the operative force of his life—the empathetic strangeness that makes him a worthy documentary subject—comes alive. The suspense climbs through an equally staggering sequence that ties the movie together as a brutal picture of tragedy, ripe with unanswered questions but spun masterfully into something truly human.
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