"It's too damned long." "The film hops about too much - it is confusing." "I found the first part very boring - I wanted to escape." These quotes come from Swedish high school and college students who viewed Peter Watkins' Freethinker as part of their curriculum. These statements were included in a letter from Watkins to educators across Sweden offering to arrange additional showings for their students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Watkins received only one reply.
Watkins makes challenging films that eschew convention, and skewer conservative government policy and corporate media programming. He achieved critical acclaim and commercial notoriety for his '60s work commissioned for the British Broadcasting Corporation, especially the 1965 nuclear-war docudrama The War Game which was shelved unaired by the BBC for twenty years, despite winning the 1966 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, because of its thinly veiled criticism of the British government's cold war posture.
Although never again garnering the degree of critical acclaim that he did for The War Game, Watkins continued to churn out work that defied convention and challenged conservatism in media and politics, including, The Gladiators (1969) a sci-fi film in which the East and the West settle their conflicts through televised combat between high-tech commando squads, and Punishment Park (1971), a fictional tale of open civil war in contemporary America, the filming of which happened to coincide with the shootings by National Guardsmen which left four Kent State students dead and nine injured.
Living in self-imposed exile from his native England, the pace of Watkins' completed work has slowed to one per decade since 1977. While the pace of his releases has declined, his intensity of effort on each project has increased. Likely no project has consumed as much of Watkins' efforts as has Freethinker.
Commissioned by the Swedish Film Institute in 1979 to produce a feature film on Swedish dissident-author, August Strindberg (1849-1912), Watkins spent two and a half years researching and writing the script only to have the project shelved when additional funding was unavailable. He recommenced the project in 1992 for a two-year video production course minimally funded by Sweden's adult education agency. Using students for cast and crew, and sets and costumes procured on a shoestring budget, Watkins completed his 274-minute opus fifteen years after he began.
Influential Swedish author and playwright, August Strindberg, challenged the conservative politics of his homeland and spent much of his productive life in exile as a result; no doubt Watkins identifies with the abuse Strindberg suffered at the hands of the state. Though Watkins outlines the story a bit differently in the booklet that accompanies this release, Watkins' script focuses principally upon two aspects of Strindberg's life: the radicalism of his writings; and, his shortcomings as husband, father, and friend.
Using a lyrical non-linear structure that not only slips back and forth in time but also interweaves extended quotes from Strindberg's writings, intertitles and interviews that link social unrest in Strindberg's time to social unrest in contemporary Sweden, fully-executed excerpts from his plays, and commentary from both his contemporaries and the actors and audience members, Watkins consciously sacrifices the clarity and comfort provided by conventional narrative in pursuit of his subject through a didactic juxtaposition of story elements and approaches. He further purposefully slows the narrative down to provide an opportunity to digest and continually challenge and revise the viewer's evolving impression of Stringberg, and, no doubt, Watkins and his project as well.
The charges leveled against Freethinker recounted in the opening paragraph of this review are not without merit. At 274 minutes it is longer than it has to be; it shifts between fiction and reality, and between past and present more than it has any right to; and, at times it drags. Substantiated allegations of this nature would rightfully damn most films, but not this one. Despite all this, and partly because of it, Freethinker is an impressive piece of filmmaking that's deserving of the effort necessary to engage it as a viewer. It should be seen, discussed, and seen again, by everyone that longs for a break from the warmed over pap that generally passes itself off as biopics.
Freethinker was recorded on video and is presented on two discs in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, the original video suffers from extreme aliasing. While this is likely mostly attributable to the source video, I think it likely that a poor PAL to NTSC conversion of this title has exacerbated the problem.
Further, I experienced a significant problem with the subtitles on both discs. When playing them on my preferred DVD player, an OPPO DV-891HD, the subtitles suffered frequent and severe digital distortion. This is something I've never encountered on any other disc, let alone two discs, in hundreds of viewings with this player. The subtitles worked fine on two other players I tested the discs with, so the problem may be unique to Oppo's or even to my player particularly, but it's significant enough that I would have returned this title as defective had I purchased it.
The DVD cover identifies the audio mix as being in stereo, however, the discs seem to be encoded with an undifferentiated 5.0 audio signal.
Extras are limited to a 16-page booklet prepared by Watkins, and an on-disc catalog of other Watkins titles available from New Yorker Video's Project X.
Peter Watkins' Freethinker is impressive filmmaking that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Unfortunately, it is undercut by a problematic transfer. If you have the option to rent it before you decide whether to buy it, I advise you do so, but in either case, please do consider seeing this film.