Movie review: 'Marwencol' chronicles one man's unique endeavors

After a near-death experience, Mark Hogancamp created a small-scale World War II-era village called Marwencol.
After a near-death experience, Mark Hogancamp created a small-scale World War II-era village called Marwencol. (Tom Putnam/cinema Guild)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 10:35 AM

In the spring of 2000, Mark Hogancamp was brutally beaten outside a bar in Kingston, N.Y. After paramedics brought him back from certain death, he stayed in a coma for several days; when he emerged from the hospital more than a month later, he did so as a changed man, with little memory of his life before the attack.

In the extraordinary documentary "Marwencol," filmmaker Jeff Malmberg chronicles how Hogancamp, with few resources at his disposal, embarked on his own brand of therapy: creating an imaginary World War II European village called Marwencol, a 1/6 scale model made from miniatures and populated by Barbie dolls dressed in period costume.

Happily, Malmberg doesn't use his camera to gawk. Rather, he introduces the audience to Hogancamp and his eccentricities with unfailing sensitivity, etching a fine, delicately nuanced portrait of an artist compelled by mysterious forces to create something utterly unique. While it's obvious that Hogancamp's hobby allows him to engage in healthy fantasy and wish fulfillment (he's a character in his own right, in the form of the courageous, handsome Captain Hogancamp), there are practical implications as well, as the work helps him regain his fine motor skills.

Eventually Hogancamp began to photograph his project, and those pictures brought him to the attention of the New York art world. When "Marwencol" takes Hogancamp out of Kingston and into Soho, filmgoers may well find themselves wincing with apprehension (especially when the plot takes an utterly surprising, potentially disastrous turn). Malmberg's thoughtful, compassionate film is about many things - the mysteries of the brain and the creative spirit, the passions and motives of one idiosyncratic individual. But at its heart, it's about the communities we forge - real and imagined - to save our own lives.

rrr Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains images of staged violence and mature themes. 83 minutes.

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