If cinema is to survive as a democratic art form, one of its most crucial figures is the English filmmaker Peter Watkins, not because of any particular aesthetic approach to the medium but because of a distinct philosophical agenda that has inflected all of his work since he began making films in the late 50's. Watkins' outspoken critique of the mass media due to its stranglehold on widespread thought and suffocation of minority voices has inevitably pushed him to the fringes of the image-making world, where his challenging, provocative, and formally inventive works are forced to struggle for their infinitesimal audiences. The Freethinker, Watkins' belated companion piece to his 1974 stroke of genius Edvard Munch, represents perhaps the utopian ideal of his worldview, even as it often abandons Watkins' own voice and loses cinematic focus because of it. After failing to acquire funding for the project in the 80's when he first intended to make it, Watkins was able to produce the film with resources provided by a small Swedish high school, where he was to collaborate with the students for a semester-long training course out of which The Freethinker would emerge.
Watkins has always been interested in the idea of rationing out authorship and ownership in his own work, which extends to his inclusion of non-professional actors and crew members, his openness to improvisation, his penchant for giving performers the ability to comment upon the film within its diegesis, and much more, but The Freethinker goes further than many of his films in this distribution of voices. Previously untrained students acted in the film, devised scenarios for the script, and in some instances even directed scenes, heavily influencing a film that for more than four hours dances around fiction and documentary, political and personal, past and present, text and meta-text, and historical fact and poetic recreation without ever fully separating the respective threads. Watkins employs these methods to shrink the gap between both the film and the audience and the film and the conditions of its own making (i.e. life), ultimately insisting upon an active participation with the film. Keeping a film's narrative space enclosed and the process of its production secret, Watkins seems to be suggesting, is to guard against the entrance of the viewer's own consciousness, and with it, his personality, thoughts, and experiences. The Freethinker, on the other hand, as well as all of Watkins' work, lives and dies based on the extra-diegetic context (personal memories, political and social conditions) brought to the experience by the viewer.
As an extension of themes raised in Edvard Munch, The Freethinker places playwright August Strindberg (another fictionalized version of whom made his way into the previous biopic) at its center, focusing on the ways in which the pursuit of his controversial personal expression was consistently thwarted - like Munch's - by his country's manipulative political pressures. Strindberg is embodied here by Anders Mattsson, a young man whose angular features and cavernous eyes make him an ideal candidate for Watkins' probing close-ups, and who resembles, surprisingly so, the man himself, as the film's frequent cutaways to archival photographs of Strindberg demonstrate. But it's not merely a surface similarity that aligns the performer and his character; Mattsson, working for the first time as a motion-picture actor, is able to convey during the period piece sequences the tenderness and wrath competing within Strindberg, the latter of which took the fore as his career continued and his work became increasingly marginalized. The effects of Strindberg's feral nature are dumped largely on his first wife Siri Von Essen, played by Swedish biology student Lena Settervall, who also brings an unexpected depth of feeling to her role. Both actors are seen throughout the film against black backgrounds commenting with grave seriousness about their respective characters, and in Setterval's close-up, the round facial structure and melancholy default expression recalls Liv Ullman.
The Freethinker shifts between several different formal modes throughout: loose recreations of moments from Strindberg's life, re-stagings of scenes from Strindberg's plays, bizarre poetic interludes that materialize psychological states, composed interviews of the cast members, naturalistic behind-the-scenes footage featuring contemporary journalists questioning Mattsson while he's in character, roundtable conversations between Watkins, journalists, and current Swedish citizens on the state of contemporary politics and culture, and relatively straightforward episodes of documentary information-transfer (on-screen text, archival footage and stills). Watkins sequences these distinct strategies with anarchic disregard for linearity, conventionality, or much discernible structure whatsoever aside from the mostly chronological presentation of Strindberg's artistic life. Therefore, he's free to clash up footage however he sees fit, resulting in a wealth of associational effects (some subtle, some didactic) whose ultimate goal is to demonstrate the cyclical nature of historical "progress," the ways in which the failures of the past unceasingly show up in varying forms in the present. Where The Freethinker surpasses standard message-making is that it's never expressly, or exclusively, about delivering this idea but rather about the many ways this root concept can provoke a plethora of tangential ideas about media, politics, social codes, artistic license, artistic truth, etc.
While Edvard Munch derived firmly from Watkins' own directorial consciousness and thus provided powerful juxtapositions of images and sound, here the amateur and multi-disciplined production means that a great portion of the source material is bland and cinematically inert. At least half of the video footage was shot in an unglamorous sound stage that was at least three times larger than what the logistical qualifications of the shoot called for, and the remaining location material is flat and uninspired, with the actors usually reciting their lines back and forth from a locked position and the camera taking no advantage of the space it's in. Therefore the strength of the film falls largely on the shoulders of Watkins' provocative editing, his ability to assemble the material in striking and unexpected ways. It's telling of Watkins' talent, then, that The Freethinker still emerges as a challenging, intellectually restless, and often invigorating work in spite of these drawbacks.