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Welcome to Marwen

An insulting and dehumanizing nightmare that doubles as a truly bizarre look into the director's own creative process.

I won’t talk too much about Marwencol other than to say that it is the far superior cinematic version of Mark Hogencamp’s life story, and that you should watch it instead of Welcome to Marwen. It’s a weird, challenging, and inspiring movie. I’ll also add that I wish more than anything that Robert Zemeckis had investigated the story further or at least understood the earlier film before trying to cram this embarrassment down our throats.

Welcome to Marwen is easily Zemeckis’ worst film (and there are some stinkers in there). Not only does it commit the unforgivable sin of deliberately misrepresenting its central character and his accompanying life-altering trauma, but it also doubles down and insists that this is all in service of telling the story through that character’s specific point of view. But Hogencamp, as portrayed by Steve Carell, just comes off as a weird old creep whom everyone else treats as a wounded animal. His face has the permanent childlike, full-of-wonder half-smile that Robin Williams used to trot out for Dead Poets Society or Patch Adams. But Williams always had that darkness just beneath the surface, while Carell is visibly struggling to even come up with his motivation from scene to scene.

Perhaps stranger still, Zemeckis throws in references to his own past work. First as hints and tiny nods, but later evolving into full-blown re-enactments of scenes from his most famous films, this ties back (somewhat) toward Hogencamp’s style of re-creating and rebuilding his own life. The side effect of this development is that we almost get the sense that Zemeckis is trying to tell us something he only halfway wants us to know. Are we getting some looking-glass version of Zemeckis’ artistic impulses? Hogencamp was probably attractive as a subject only inasmuch as he could let the director dive deeper than ever into his motion-capture obsession while giving himself an out for once by using the doll motif as a stand-in for his usual dead-eyed creations. This would all be interesting on its own (at least in theory) if he wasn’t being so condescending to the actual story and characters he’s ostensibly working with in the first place.

Hogencamp, in his real life and in Zemeckis’ film, likes wearing high heels. He was beaten almost to death by neo-Nazis for even mentioning it. During that beating, he says, they “kicked all the memories out of my head.” He can’t remember anything about his life before the attack, other than that he was an illustrator. Brain and nerve damage now prevent him from drawing, so he builds and photographs figures in Marwen, a miniature Belgium circa World War II. Yet Zemeckis opens his film with the mini-Hogencamp wearing heels and plays the scene for laughs. We’re invited to join in with the Nazis before we even know such a possibility was ever on the table and are never given the option of accepting this character trait as anything other than funny or abnormal. The truth is that Zemeckis has lost all trust for his audience (the less said about Deja Thoris the Belgian Witch the better). Welcome to Marwen is crass, dishonest and disgraceful. Mark Hogencamp has suffered enough for being who he is. He certainly doesn’t deserve this, too.

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