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By Paul Costello • February 3rd, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
The Cinema Guild

Original release: October 8th, 2010
Running time: 83 minutes

Director: Jeff Malmberg

Cast: Mark Hogancamp


We were all kids at some point, yes? Whether a boy or girl, we had toys we played with and acted out fantastical scenarios for our amusement, and sometimes the amusement of others. And this would often reveal how we, as developing individuals, interpreted and understood relationships and how the world worked around us. For my part, I can recall recreating fight scenes from Bruce Lee movies with my cousin’s Sylvanian Families dolls… I know, right? However, generally speaking, we grow out of this, with our relationships with the real world becoming the main focus of our lives. To paraphrase a Biblical quote, when a person grows up, they put away childish things… but what if these “childish things” become, not just a fixture in your life once more, but a genuine requirement that allows you to learn to cope in the real world?

Art therapy may be something you’ve heard of before. If not, the short way of explaining it is thus: “Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication.” ¹. Basically, someone who has psychological or emotional issues can be referred to an art therapist, who will guide the individual through a process of engaging with their own particular trauma through a given art medium, such as painting or music, etc. On April 8th, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five young men outside a bar and beaten almost to death. Spending nine days in a coma and over a month in the hospital, Mark was eventually discharged with brain damage that left him little memory of his life before the attack…

Unable to afford professional therapy that wouldn’t be covered by government assistance, Mark effectively created his own form of therapy by building a 1/6-scale World War II-era Belgian town in his yard, and populating it with dolls of himself, his friends, and his attackers. The town is named Marwencol, and it’s through his efforts here that he rehabilitates the physical effects of his attack by building everything in the town, and the mental trauma by having the figures act out full storylines of conflict and human drama.


It’s tough to know how any one person will deal with the aftermath of the kind of assault that Mark Hogancamp experienced a decade before the release of the film that tells his story. In his own words, he had “every memory kicked out of his head” and was left for dead on the street. That in itself is a horrific thing to have happened, but Mark’s subsequent struggles to return to the world, to learn who he was before the attack, to simply learn how to walk again are pretty sizable obstacles. And to be told that he had to do so without the help of medical professionals? Damn, that’s tough.

But such is simply the beginning of the odd, funny, tragic, incredibly engaging story told in this film. It’s the look at an incredibly personal endeavour of one man’s attempt to rediscover and reinvent himself in the aftermath of a tragedy, and the depth of character that is unveiled to us is incredible. At times, it’s almost too personal, like we’re being given a chance to see directly into the notes and findings of Mark Hogancamp’s therapy sessions… because that’s basically what it is. And it is fascinating to see how it all unfolds.

Mark is a truly fascinating individual. In trying to learn of his previous life, he discovers truths about himself that he finds repellent, primarily a serious problem with alcohol, forcing not just a change in his own new life, but a reflection of this within his small-scale world. His love life, and difficulties with, also have their ripples in the world of Marwencol. And, for all of his problems, Mark is a very smart guy, aware of his problems and how both he and they are represented in his extended fantasy world. MarwencolAnd he also seems to be quite a natural storyteller, with a special ability for character. It rather speaks to just how invested he is in this world that he needs to make it as real as possible, so needs characters to be as complete as he can make them. Hogancamp, effectively the writer-director of his own little world, has imbued his diminutive players with attention to personality, desires and history. He loves the characters that populate his town, and this comes through beautifully in the film. Mark’s world is truly an absorbing one.

The town of Marwencol is a focused, immensely detailed microcosm through which Mark can play out an extended and, seemingly, never-ending psychodrama, featuring himself and the people in his life with whom he wishes to share his world. By collecting various G.I. Joe dolls and Barbie dolls and other collectable figures (Honor Blackman and Drew Barrymore amongst them), Mark changes them all to become what he calls “alter egos” of those he knows in real life, that he can then use to act out his extensive and fairly elaborate stories. Even the name Marwencol is a portmanteau of the names of himself (Mark), his mother (Wendy) and his first love (Colleen), each of whom have their place in his town.

The film is at its most intriguing when we actually get to follow the storylines as told by Mark through his descriptions and photographs, and with the knowledge of the reality that informs them that we get from director Malmberg’s contextualisation. Moments where enemy soldiers, members of the Nazi SS, enter the village of MarwencolMarwencol, capture Mark’s alter ego and torture him have a particular poignancy when you know that these enemy soldiers are representatives of Mark’s past demons striking out at him, be they his seething alcoholism or the ghosts of those that attacked him, both of which clearly still hang heavy within him. His alter ego even starts to show scars himself, both emotional and physical, from these confrontations.

Director Malmberg has judged the tone of the film incredibly well. Though it would be so easy to dismiss the subject matter as something inherently quirky – “look, it’s a grow man playing with dolls, isn’t that zany?” – that would betray the underlying tragedy of the tale, the film always remains respectful of Mark and his process. And neither does it drag things down into the bog of solemnity and pity. The whole flows beautifully, finding humour and pathos in equal measure without being mawkish or knowingly ironic. As I said, this model town is Mark’s therapy, and you wouldn’t mock the highly personal efforts of someone coping with their own trauma. Malmberg knows this and it is a very respectful piece of work.

It’s also not entirely beyond the ability of the film to question its subject, though not in an overt manner. As much as using the town of Marwencol as a method of rehabilitation can help Mark get himself squared away after what happened, it’s not without a corollary, that Mark would become too comfortable within his world and not want to engage with the real one anymore. Indeed, there’s some evidence to suggest that there are several points where Mark’s investment in his fantasy are having a slightly unhealthy effect in his own life. Certainly, it’s a point that Mark himself acknowledges when his work is to be shown in a New York art gallery, and he must then lay bare his wounds for all to see, making him very uncomfortable at the potential fallout… and you are totally with him for the whole thing.

Marwencol is an incredibly rich film, concerning itself with trauma, personal change and what art is and how it can be used to work through some very harsh demons. By showing how Mark Hogancamp has literally built a world for him to control and feel safe in, it shines a kind of light on just how we all attempt to construct a form of reality that we can feel comfortable in, keeping ourselves safe from the many harms, known and unknown, that can threaten us in our day-to-day lives. It even has its uses in the realm of storytelling, demonstrating just how characters can be constructed with motivations and needs beyond those of the one telling the story. And it’s all centred on an individual that is himself thoroughly interesting.


Paul Costello

Paul Costello

Paul Costello is a critic, blogger and former film editor with a degree in filmmaking from the University of the West of Scotland. He’s been watching movies for as long as he can remember, and began the process of writing about every movie he owns on his blog: acinephilesjourney.blogspot.co.uk. He’ll be at that for a while. He’s also the resident film writer at TheStreetSavvy.com.

You can follow him on Twitter @PaulCinephile.

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