An Imaginary World War II Speakeasy Saved This Man’s Life
Marwencol is an oasis in a war-torn Europe … and in the mind of Mark Hogancamp
It all started when his P-40 Warhawk caught fire over Belgium.
He saw a small town below and crash landed his plane in a nearby field. Unscathed by the daring-do, he wandered into town. It was desolate. The bodies of soldiers rotted in the streets and doorways of buildings. As he moved through the streets, he heard rustling. The clack of heels on stone. Women emerged from hiding places beneath the village to greet him.
They told him that the S.S. had come through and killed all the men while the women hid. It was a town full of women, total population 27. Now, 28. He was the only guy in town. The woman set him up with a building and he converted it into a bar.
This was Marwencol, Belgium. To downed pilot Mark Hogancamp it seemed like the perfect place to wait out World War II. Other soldiers streamed in, a steady march of British, American and even German troops. Mark told them all they could stay in Marwencol, but only if they agreed to live and let live. The war would not touch this oasis.
The truce held and Marwencol became a haven in the middle of war-torn Europe. But the S.S., who had not long before murdered half the town’s population, always lurked on the fringes. The vile Nazi Schutzstaffel were always a threat.
The story of Marwencol is a true story, but it’s not a real story. The World War II-era sanctuary city exists in the yard outside of a trailer in Kingston, New York. It’s an imaginary world, constructed from debris and dolls by its creator … Mark Hogancamp.
Hogancamp is a veteran and former sailor who liked drinking and drawing. He used to a drink a lot, but he doesn’t remember that time in his life anymore. Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg tells Hogancamp’s story in the brilliant 2010 documentary Marwencol.
Malmberg’s film follows two narratives, both about Hogancamp. Half the film follows the artist as he explains his recovery after an attack robbed him of his memory and his motor skills. He crafted Marwencol to heal, and the dolls helped him recover his patience, imagination and self-confidence.
The other half is also about Hogancamp, the doll version that lives in the fantastic Belgian town of Marwencol, where he serves beer at his bar, orchestrates staged cat-fights, keeps the peace between the Allies and the Germans and goes on wild adventures.
In 2000, Mark got drunk at a bar, as he often did, but this time ran afoul of five other patrons. The five guys took Hogancamp into the parking lot and beat the hell out of him. They crushed his skull and put him in a coma.
When Hogancamp woke up, he didn’t remember who he was. He learned everything over again–how to walk, talk and write. Even now, he only recalls life before the attack in brief flashes like photographs falling from a loose hand.
Hogancamp was an artist before the attack. Elaborate drawings fill the personal diaries he poured through to reconnect with the person he no longer remembered being. He drew pictures of soldiers with melted faces crawling through mud, himself drunk at a bar and pictures of scantily clad women torturing bound men.
He was good. The pictures are reminiscent of ’50s era men’s magazines and pre-censorship E.C. war comics. But Hogancamp couldn’t draw after the attack. His hands shook. Writing words was hard enough, let alone sketching vivid pictures of men at war.
But he wanted to use his hands and his imagination. He couldn’t draw anymore, but he could build. He found debris in the yard around his Kingston home and built a little bar called Hogancamp’s. Then he began buying dolls from a hobby store to populate the bar. Marwencol was born.
The scenes Hogancamp creates are brutal, surreal and beautiful. The citizens of Marwencol begin as Barbies and hobby shop dolls but become much more when Hogancamp adds make up, costumes and props.
The level of detail and his slavish devotion to authentic costumes and weaponry help bring Marwencol to life. Early in the film, Hogancamp shows off a silvery .45 held by one of his dolls. He pulls back the slide and cocks the hammer. He even pulls the magazine loose.
“So that adds to my ferocity of getting into it, y’know? Into the story,” he explains. “Because I know everything works. I almost know what every satchel is carrying. That’s grenades.” He points at a bag at a soldier’s side.
“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around,” Stephen King wrote in On Writing. Hongancamp exemplifies that. His imaginary world full of meticulous war dolls gives him a measure of control over his life.
“Everybody at one time or another wishes they had a double that could do things that they could never do,” Hogancamp explains. “So what I do, with alter egos, I tell my friends, ‘You can be anybody you want, you can do anything you want in my town.’”
Hogancamp’s friends and family populate the town. When he meets a new person and gets to know them, he incorporates them into Marwencol. His mother tends the bar, one of his co-workers runs the local church and Malmberg–the documentarian–makes films in the tiny Belgian village.
Lucky for Hogancamp too, because those friends are often his savior. People who lose themselves in a fantasy world often do so to experience a power they lack in real life. It’s why bad fantasy novels and video games appeal so much to teenage boys.
But Hogancamp is different. Often, Mark the doll is just as powerless as Mark the man. The citizens of his town go on adventures and live elaborate lives. Sometimes … bad things happen. Sometimes, the S.S. finds the town.
During the film, Hogancamp relates an instance in which the S.S. assaulted Morwencal. Everyone hid, but Mark stayed behind in his bar and the Nazis captured him. There were five of them. The Nazis tortured him for days before the townspeople rose up, killed the S.S. troopers and rescued their patron. The woman in town, in particular, were instrumental in Mark’s rescue.
The deaths of the enemy Germans are gruesome, recalling Hongancamp’s earlier E.C. comics-style artwork. The ritual destruction of five bad guys who beat him up gives Hogancamp a measure of control over his world. It helps him process that night in 2000 when five thugs beat the crap out of him. But it’s not the doll Hogancamp who takes revenge, but the elaborate cast of characters he created.
His fantasy life saves him, as it does for so many of us.
The New York art world eventually discovered Hogancamp. His photos and dolls tour the art scene of the Big Apple, where he stalks the galleries in a mix of World War II era regalia and women’s stockings and heels.
He’s a success–The New York Times just profiled him. In other hands, the dioramas and scenarios Hognacamp creates might seem hokey or forced. But to him, they are real. You can hear it in his voice late in the film when he’s talking to gallery attendees staring at his pictures.
“See, the SS sent somebody there to kill me,” he explains with a tremble in his voice. “And all the women of Marwencol stabbed the crap out of him.” He could just have easily been describing the night the five men assaulted him.
Hogancamp’s flesh and blood friends are as compassionate, kind and fierce as his dolls. They’re helping him publish a book of his art-work and stories. You can pre-order it here.
During Hogancamp’s first art show in New York City, one of his friends overheard a snobbish attendee shaming the photos. He said he wanted to go look at pictures of real war.
“This is Mark’s real war,” the friend says.