Ten years ago, amateur artist and alcoholic Mark Hogancamp was beaten to near-death outside a bar in his small New York hometown, emerging from a coma with significant memory loss and an altered personality. He lost his taste for booze and became anxious around large groups. He also developed a therapeutic hobby: building a tiny Belgian town he called “Marwencol” in his backyard, populated by dolls who resemble his friends and neighbors, all made to enact Hogancamp’s utopian World War II fantasies. Then he photographed the town, using the snapshots almost like panels in a comic book, to tell stories about a peaceful place that has been threatened by violence but is ultimately protected by good men and women.
Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol is at its best when it focuses on Hogancamp’s little world, and lets the artist walk the viewer through his town’s increasingly dense mythology. Hogancamp’s version of the past is sweet in a way: He gives all his women fancy shoes (because they deserve it, he says), and though he’s built a “catfight club” called The Ruined Stocking in the center of town, he insists that all the fights are staged and that nobody gets hurt. But as much as Hogancamp tries to neuter and compartmentalize violence, his past experiences creep into Marwencol. He crafts scenarios in which SS agents assault the doll based on himself, after which “Hogancamp” and his army of sympathetic, impeccably shod women exact a bloody revenge.
The problem with Malmberg’s tight, intimate study of this man is that when the story expands to the art world that’s taking an interest in Hogancamp’s work—and Hogancamp’s subsequent anxiety over a trip to New York for an exhibition—the larger narrative feels too limited in its perspective. Because Malmberg withholds the details of Hogancamp’s attack until late in the film, and because the majority of the non-Hogancamp commentary in Marwencol comes from friends and fans, it feels like essential pieces of this story are missing. Still, the story that is here is fascinating, anchored by a well-spoken eccentric always in a mild state of panic about how people think of him. And the details of Hogancamp’s work are poignant too, whether it be his recreation of the marriage he can’t remember or his construction of a miniature time machine so that his characters have the power to change their fates.