If it wasn’t for all the Nazis, Marwen would be a pretty great place.
It has everything a knee-high, World War II-era Belgian village could need: a fountain, a church, a boarding house, a bar. The town’s caretakers—all beautiful, heavily-armed dolls—seem nice, too. Hoagie, a Marwen bar owner and gruff American G.I., certainly seems partial to them. They’re his soldiers, his friends, his adoring fan club, his protectors.
And boy, does he need protection, given all the Nazis—Germans constantly resurrected by Deja Thoris, Marwen’s “Belgian Witch” and Hoagie’s lovestruck nemesis.
“She keeps bringing the Nazis back,” Marwen’s flesh-and-blood maker/proprietor, Mark Hogancamp, tells his new neighbor, Nicol. “That confuses me.”
It’s not the only thing that confuses Mark these days. Once a talented illustrator, Mark was beaten nearly to death outside a bar several years back: He spent days in the hospital, months recovering from his physical wounds. But parts of him never healed at all.
The beating destroyed his ability to draw: He can barely write his name now. It shattered his memories, too—knocked them clean out of his head, he says. He once had a wife and children, Now all he has are a handful of old photos of them. Everything else about them is gone.
And so he sinks himself into a new world of his own making: the world of Marwen. The name itself is a combination of his own name (Mark) and Wendy, the woman who found him in the bar’s parking lot, broken and bleeding. A doll-like version of Wendy used to live in Marwen, too: She married Hoagie, and they might’ve lived happily ever after had Wendy not been shot by Nazis shortly after their wedding (and the real Wendy moved away).
But Mark still populates Marwen with people he knows: Julie, Mark’s rehab specialist; Anna, Mark’s blustering Russian nurse; Roberta, the kindly hobby-shop owner who keeps Mark supplied with dolls and miniatures; Caralala, a bartender/waitress with whom he rolls meatballs once a week; Suzette, Mark’s favorite actress from a softcore porn series.
And then there’s Nicol without the “e,” a newcomer to Mark’s real-world neighborhood and his fictional village of Marwen. After Wendy, Hoagie said he’d never love again. But Nicol may force him to reconsider.
If it wasn’t for those Nazis, perhaps Hoagie could think about his future more clearly.
They waltz into Marwen as if they own the place, and every time, it seems they find Hoagie and whip him, kick him, chain him, beat him. Hoagie succumbs again to the rain of fists and feet, bleeding and broken. And sometimes, the bucolic beauty of Marwen fades. As Hoagie absorbs blow after blow, it takes on the tinge and texture of a bar parking lot.
The beauties of Marwen save Hoagie again and again. But the Nazis come back.
They always come back.
Mark needs help: a lot of it. And he gets it.
Some of it he creates himself through Marwen and the complicated coping narratives he tells about the place. Hoagie, Mark’s alter ego in Marwen, is a hero cut straight from a 1950s war flick—all tough talk and unflappable action. He’s everything that Mark simply can’t be now. And sometimes, when the membrane between Marwen and the real world grows thin, Hoagie comes to Mark’s rescue.
Hoagie’s battalion of Marwen beauties is also composed of courageous, sacrificial souls. But their real-life counterparts are far more impressive. Each of them has played a massive role in Mark’s recovery, helping him move back toward sanity and stability.
Nurse Anna leaves strict instructions and helpful notes around Mark’s house, helping him to survive and operate in a world he’s not very comfortable in. Caralala facilitates his part-time work at a local dive. Roberta—perhaps the kindest, most constant presence in Mark’s life—engages with him heavily in his fictional world, and she tries to pry him out of it from time to time.
I especially like what Julie—Mark’s rehab buddy—tells him in a flashback: “You gotta embrace the pain,” she tells him. That pain—the pain of rehab—makes you stronger, she suggests, and it becomes an important catalyst in Mark’s mental rehabilitation, too.
Mark seems to be at least vaguely religious. We see a drawing of praying hands (perhaps done by a pre-attack Mark) hanging on a wall, along with a small cross. In Marwen, Hoagie goes to the church to pray, though he admits that he’s not the praying type. Also in that imaginative world, Caralala wears a cross around her neck, and she makes the sign of a cross during a conversation.
Deja, the “Belgian Witch” of Marwen, has the magical ability to zap anyone she feels like to 15 million years into the future. She indeed seems to haunt Mark’s waking life, too, like a mysterious specter. (Unlike the rest of the women of Marwen, Mark admits he has no idea where she came from.)
Mark/Hoagie has a penchant for women’s shoes. In fact, Mark’s admission that he sometimes wears them precipitates the attack at the bar. (His attackers accuse him of being “queer.”) In real life, Mark owns nearly 300 pairs of shoes, and we often see him wandering about while wearing them. Hoagie’s taste in shoes is more flamboyant: He wears pumps and stilettos fairly frequently. He even uses them as weapons.
Mark’s predilection for shoes doesn’t seem to be overtly sexual in nature—at least not in the way that one might assume. Wearing women’s shoes, he says, gives him insight to a woman’s “essence.” He’s not gay. But Mark’s (and Hoagie’s) relationship with women is problematic in its own right.
As mentioned, one of Mark’s Marwen heroines is an actress from what appears to be a softcore porn series. (Mark watches the opening moments of one of her shows, where we see the woman, Suzette, in a skimpy, cleavage-revealing French maid outfit and a thong.) Before he was injured, Mark drew a number of half-clad women, their ample bare bosoms on display (much to the shock of Nicol when she leafs through his old portfolio).
Moreover, Mark’s fictional Marwen allows him to literally objectify the women in his life—turning them into playthings that he can control and manipulate, characters who nearly worship Mark’s alter ego, Hoagie.
Obviously, we understand the deep psychological scars that go into this make-believe world. But even though Mark’s fantasies may somehow play a role in his ability to cope and even recover, they still can feel quite disconcerting. The fact that he dresses his dolls in provocative wear and, sometimes, takes pictures of them naked or topless, adds to this part of the story’s creepy vibe. (When Roberta stops by and finds her own doll avatar with her shirt torn open, revealing the Barbie-like breasts underneath, she asks Mark what happened to her top. “The Nazis ripped it off,” Mark tells her. “Again?” she says.)
When Nicol moves in next door, Mark falls for her—and naturally in Marwen, Hoagie and the doll Nicol engage in a torrid love affair. We see a number of pictures of the dolls kissing (clothed), and when Mark decides to have the two get hitched, he explains to the real-life Nicol that they’ll tie the knot at 12:01 a.m. That’s because Deja (who’s in love with Hoagie, remember) can’t interfere with their lovemaking between midnight and the darkest hour of the morning.
Nicol’s real-life ex-boyfriend accuses Mark of being a white supremacist pedophile. Nicol’s not bothered by what she calls Mark’s “shoe fetish.” She tells Mark that her brother not only likes women’s shoes, but lingerie, too.
Marwen can be a brutally violent place. The village’s protectors gun Nazis down with enthusiasm, pouring seemingly hundreds of rounds into their German adversaries. Nazis are sometimes set on fire, too, and one is bloodily stabbed in the neck with a stiletto: He falls from a church tower and onto a spikey fence, impaling himself.
But it’s not just the Nazis who suffer here: Hoagie is beaten multiple times, and at one point the G.I. is strung up in a church, where Nazis are apparently whipping him relentlessly. An innocent milkmaid gets gunned down as she rushes to plant a kiss on Hoagie. (Anyone who gets close to Hoagie eventually dies, the doll solemnly says.) Another nearly dies from a gunshot wound. Others are killed or zapped by Deja: Mark keeps deceased characters (including his beloved Wendy) in a plastic bin marked with the letters “RIP.”
In the opening scene, Hoagie’s World War II fighter plane is engaged in an air battle in which he gets shot down, forcing him to ditch the flaming vehicle in the Belgian forest. He suffers a bloody wound to the face in the crash’s aftermath, and he carries a scar for the rest of the movie.
We see a few flashbacks to when Mark was attacked in the real world, including brutal blows to his head and midsection. In one such scene, we see Mark’s bloodied, mangled face before the camera switches position and gives us a Mark’s-eye view of a boot descending on his face. We see pictures of him in the hospital, sporting his horrific wounds. Several narrative elements suggest that he’s suicidal.
Sometimes fiction and reality grow confused on screen. Triggers can send Mark back to the beating or pull him into a violent scene in Marwen, where he cowers underneath a hail of bullets or thumping fists and feet. In court, his real-life attackers morph into Nazis and begin shooting up the courtroom (including the judge): Hoagie the doll transforms into a life-size version of himself, firing back and telling Mark to scram.
We hear five s-words and a smattering of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “d–k” and “crap.” God’s name is misused three times, including twice with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is also abused thrice. We hear a crude reference to breasts.
Mark admits that he used to drink way too much before the attack, and that he was drunk the night it happened. (In flashback, we see him drinking at a bar.) “I haven’t had a drink since they beat it out of me,” he says, even refusing a bottle of wine he receives as a gift. Mark does smoke, though, and we often see him with a cigarette in his mouth, his head swathed in smoke.
Potentially more problematic is Mark’s relationship to his meds. Though his nurse, Anna, tells him repeatedly to take just one pill a day, he seems to consume at least three daily. And when Anna asks him how it’s possible to go through his meds so quickly, Mark sheepishly suggests he spilled them in the sink.
[Spoiler Warning] Deja Thoris turns out to be the personified manifestation of those drugs. She whispers to both Hoagie and Mark that she’s the only one who understands his pain—pushing him into greater dependence and addiction, and finally suggesting that he end his life through those pills. Mark’s response is to dump them all down the drain—which is great in context, the movie suggests. But psychiatric drugs, when prescribed by a knowledgeable physician, are meant to help folks like Mark, and I wonder whether the rejection of his meds sends a mixed message at best, and at worst a potentially destructive one.
Hoagie owns a bar in Marwen, and we often see him and his ladies drink and dance there. We hear that Nicol’s ex-boyfriend, Kurt, recently got his second DUI.
Hoagie refers to women as “dames.” Nicol’s old boyfriend is a real jerk. Mark sometimes lies to get out of potentially uncomfortable situations. In Marwen, characters both good and bad make racist-tinged quips.
Don’t knock the power of make-believe.
We say that all the time here at Plugged In, in our own way. We know that the stories we tell each other—the movies and television shows we watch, the games we play—are powerful things. They shape our world (or at least our perceptions of it). They influence our thoughts. They give us a platform to think about issues and problems and even the biggest of questions in new, and potentially productive, ways.
Sometimes, as with Mark, our stories protect us. They give us, hopefully, a catalyst to grow.
But stories can hurt us, too.
Welcome to Marwen is based on the true story of photographer Mark Hogancamp. As such, it’s somewhat constrained by the facts. Mark’s penchant for women’s shoes is a matter of record, as is the horrific attack on him because of it. And the make-believe world of Marwen is just as horrific in some ways—a violent, sexually problematic place. Again, we understand that the objectification we see is part of Mark’s story, and perhaps we could excuse it in that context. But several women I talked with after my screening found the film really offensive because of that objectification, and I get it.
I suppose that’s the same with much of the content we see in this film—or, for that matter, see anywhere. Yes, perhaps we can understand why it’s present. But does that mean we should excuse it? Is the story’s payoff enough to offset the gunk we have to sit through to get there?
Welcome to Marwen, for all its creativity, feels like a missed opportunity. It leans into its fantastical elements and shortchanges the real heroes of the story, the flesh-and-blood women who befriended and supported a man in deep, desperate need.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.