Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Marwencol Movie Poster Image
Fascinating docu traces victim's unusual healing process.
  • NR
  • 2010
  • 83 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

This film confirms that in the aftermath of even the most devastating and life-threatening event, an individual can reconstruct a fulfilling life.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mark Hogencamp, the victim of a near-fatal attack, is the ultimate survivor. His innate artistic talent, a passionate sense of purpose, and his desire to not let the perpetrators win, combine to help him forge a fragile, if unconventional way of life, and begin to make a name for himself in the art world. The film also introduces many good-hearted, generous people who help him make his way.


Many acts of violence are depicted by manipulating an array of dolls (Barbies and GI Joes). The dolls are bloodied, scarred, tortured, and bullet-ridden in numerous sequences as courageous doll-heroes (including the alter ego of the artist himself) engage the German SS (in doll-form) in the fictional town of Marwencol, Belgium during World War II. The film takes place after the brutal beating (with sexual implications) of the main subject. The beating is discussed, but not seen.


Sexuality is restricted to the artist posing the Barbie and GI dolls in sexual positions and in various stages of undress. In dialogue, the artist talks about his own desires for love and intimacy and expresses those feelings using the dolls.


Occasional coarse language, including: "pisses off," "asshole," "f--k," "s--t," and a reference to cross-dressing.


Most of the characters in the film are created using Barbie and GI Joe dolls.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Honest discussions about Mark Hogencamp's previous severe alcoholism and his sobering up after the attack upon him. Mark smokes non-stop throughout the film.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this award-winning documentary takes a frank look at the badly-traumatized victim of a brutal beating and examines sensitive issues such as alcoholism, sexuality, revenge, and the fragility of the human brain. As a coping and healing strategy, the subject creates a miniature city with dolls to help him overcome the damage to his brain as well as the terrible fears that linger. The dolls, dressed, made up (often bloodied and scarred), and sometimes placed in provocative positions, engage in lovemaking, World War II battles, torture, and mayhem. There are numerous references to the subject's past alcoholic behavior; he smokes continuously. Some strong language is heard occasionally ("pissed off," "asshole," "f--k," "s--t").

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What's the story?

Mark Hogencamp, an alcoholic ne'er-do-well, suffers traumatic brain injury after a brutal attack outside a bar in 2000. After nine days in a coma, he awakens unable to walk, speak, write, or care for himself. He needs to relearn even the most basic skills as well as recover from the massive emotional damage he's incurred. His hospital rehabilitation is cut short when Medicaid funds run out and Mark returns to his trailer home in Kingston, New York, to begin the slow process of healing himself. He undergoes a miraculous recovery and transformation as he uncovers latent artistic talent creating and photographing MARWENCOL, a miniature Belgian city he creates in his front yard. Using Barbie Dolls and GI Joes, and set amidst the turmoil of World War II, the now sober, but still fragile victim produces characters, stories, and events that avenge his attack, help him find his own worth as a human being, and confront his demons. He faces a secondary challenge when he is asked to bring his art to a gallery in New York City. Will he lose his tenuous hold on a new life when he ventures into the big city with big expectations?

Is it any good?

Jeff Malmberg and his documentary team treat the subject of this inspirational, unique film with great respect and dignity. Everything about Mark Hogancamp is unorthodox and often unsettling; however, his passion for the miniature world he has created, along with his fragility and candid self-examination keep the audience rooting for him and his survival.

It's a spellbinding movie, never widely released, but the recipient of many international film festival awards. Because it deals with highly-charged issues: revenge, sexuality, mental disorders, it is recommended only for adults and mature teens.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the resilience of the human spirit. Do you think Mark Hogancamp was better off before or after the attack? Why?

  • Documentary filmmakers usually have an attitude about their subjects. How did the people making this film feel about Mark?

  • How does the presence of filmmakers and reporters affect Hogencamp's life? Is there any danger to exposing this man's life to the curious world? Do the filmmakers have any responsibility toward their subject's safety and/or mental health?

Movie details

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