The Incredible Strangeness of ‘Welcome to Marwen’

… by a fellow photographer of miniature toy dioramas.

Welcome to Marwen (2018) is a Robert Zemeckis movie based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp. Having already seen the documentary Marwencol (2010), I already knew the following about Mark and his incredible life story, which provided a useful foundation for this movie.

Mark Hogancamp is a hate crime survivor. He mentioned he likes wearing women’s shoes while drinking at a bar, and in return got jumped from behind by five guys. They beat him nearly to death, putting him in a coma for nine days. When he regained consciousness, Mark had no memory of his prior life and had to relearn to write, speak, and walk again.

His state funding for medical care soon ran out, so he turned to a miniature world for his own version of therapy. His hands were too shaky for smaller scale models so, at the suggestion of a local hobby shop owner, he settled on 1:6 scale (think Barbie and GI Joe) and created the fictional Belgian town of ‘Marwencol’, circa World War II.

An image by the real-life Mark Hogancamp

Previously an alcoholic, Mark never drank again after the attack. I say this as a precursor, but even in real life, yes, his views on women are somewhat off-putting. He adores them, but from a distance. They’re different than other people; held on a pedestal and lacking personal narratives.

I, myself, also photograph toys and have PTSD, just like Mark.

I didn’t begin photographing toys to heal from trauma (it’s been in my life much longer than that), but I can relate to the calming properties of creation. Toy photography provides a tangible way to illustrate emotions and work through personal stories. I also agree that war is a good allegory for personal struggle and I’ve used it in such a way in my own work. In this, I became quite interested in Mark Hogancamp’s fascinating story. Not only that, but his work is beautiful. His raw, non-art school principled, documentarian take on miniature war scenes are striking.

One of my own war images made with planes from the board game Axis and Allies ©

For better or for worse, Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Caroline Thompson created a fake narrative around Hogancamp’s real life. We begin with a landing plane. Hoagie’s (the nickname for the main character’s action figure) boots go up in flames as they’re dragged along the dirt. He happens upon an abandoned suitcase with some patent leather heels inside and puts them on. This is our first tip-off of Hoagie’s love for women’s shoes. Or as he later tells us he ‘collects women’s essences.’

And from this point on we switch back and forth between Mark’s real life (the human version of the main character, played by Steve Carell) and his struggle to heal, and his action figure wartime alter-ego.

Mark’s movements are deliberate and he has to work to understand the world around him. He doesn’t remember his past and no longer has the stability needed to draw. In re-starting his creative journey, he finds himself in action figures, relating his trauma to that of a soldier at war. We see his weaknesses and PTSD flashbacks and feel so much emotion for him in those moments.

However, his emboldened Hoagie side is less likeable, with misplaced jokes about diets and sausages, and his world is filled with women he has to defend.

Spoilers for ‘Welcome Marwen’ in the paragraph below

I’d like to attempt to make allowances for this and Mark’s uncomfortable behaviour — like asking a woman (Leslie Mann) with a boyfriend (Neil Jackson), whom he knows little about personally, to marry him, using a war badge he didn’t earn in place of a ring. And that allowance would be this: this man is severely traumatised, with brain damage that likely set him back in his mental development. Without medical help, he’s doing his best to navigate the world set before him and is obviously not always successful in this endeavour. The women in his action figure world represent those in his real life who protect him. In his imagination he’s switched the roles, seeing himself as the strong provider that he can’t currently be in his real life.

Conversely, Roberta (Merritt Weaver) the hobby shop owner, is a refreshing female presence in the film. She’s real and sympathetic and not as empty as the other featured women, showing how important her shop has been to Mark’s convalescence. She also clearly has feelings for Mark, and we have some hope at the end of the movie that maybe they’ll get together. Through Mark and Roberta’s interactions, we also see signs that Mark may be learning to separate his real life from his imagined world, which isn’t so prevalent throughout the beginning of the film.

Heartwarming titbits aside, with its violent animation, PG-13 certification, dolls in lingerie, the sexual attraction of dolls, and multiple breast and penis jokes, I’ve come to the conclusion Welcome to Marwen was never intended for families or children. That’s all well and good, but, honestly, it only seems that a few select Instagram toy photographers would laugh at the oddly placed jokes and what a niche group that is to make a movie for.

And that’s to say, as so often is done in Hollywood, this story is a confused and oversimplified version of a real-life tale. The real Mark, while problematic in his own right, has a moving story to tell. He’s a man I’d maybe want to meet to discuss his art. And yet, as a woman, knowing what goes on in his imagination, I’d likely stay far away from his film counterpart to which the film provides less redeeming elements.

Welcome to Marwen attempts an intimate look at the inner workings of a broken man. And I give the filmmakers credit for taking on such a difficult challenge. So if you want my recommendation, go see the movie now it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray… but only to see what a mess it is, not to learn about Mark Hogancamp’s inspirational story.