Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carrell plays an attack victim who retreats into fantasy. But how much did the movie, based on a real-life story, make up?

Steve Carrell in Welcome to Marwen; Mark Hogancamp
Steve Carrell in Welcome to Marwen; Mark Hogancamp.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Marwencol/PBS.

Welcome to Marwen starts with a nail-biting action sequence right out of a gung-ho WWII morale booster: a square-jawed, leather-jacketed U.S. Army air ace, his engines on fire, skims over a forest and crash-lands, managing to escape the burning plane only to be surrounded by a Nazi patrol. But something about the film seems off—the actors have an oddly plasticized look, and the pilot, barefoot after his boots are incinerated during the landing, encounters the Germans while wearing a stylish pair of women’s high heels he has found along the way.

It turns out the sequence is a dramatization of a fantasy world created by Mark Hogancamp as a way of coping with a severe trauma. Hogancamp built a tiny “Belgian village,” originally called Marwen and later Marwencol, in his backyard and populated it with characters—some based on people he knew, some imaginary—embodied by customized action figures and Barbie dolls, who enacted scenarios that he photographed. In 2005, David Naugle, a photographer neighbor of Hogancamp’s in upstate New York, became aware of the installation after seeing Hogancamp pulling a scale-model Army jeep filled with dolls along the road and asked if there were any photos.

Naugle immediately recognized the power of Hogancamp’s images—cinematic stills from an imaginary wartime B-movie that unironically replicate the narrative punch of the genre—and sent them off to an art magazine. The resulting coverage led to an exhibition, a documentary, a book, and now Robert Zemeckis’ feature film starring Steve Carrell (who portrayed an equally obsessive, though far more malevolent, eccentric recluse in Foxcatcher) as Hogancamp.

Steve Carrell in Welcome to Marwen; Mark Hogancamp
Steve Carrell in Welcome to Marwen; Mark Hogancamp.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Marwencol/PBS.

The Attack

In the film, a couple of loutish bros try to pick a fight with Hogancamp in his local bar, calling him a “queer.” A fairly drunk Hogancamp nonchalantly deflects their abuse with quips and thinks he has neutralized the situation, but as soon as he leaves the bar, five guys jump him, beating him savagely. Hogancamp lies in the road for an hour before he is found by a waitress, Wendy (the “Wen” in Marwen), whom Hogancamp is in love with.

This is pretty much what happened in 2000, except that Hogancamp got chatting with Freddy Hommel, one of the attackers, in the Luny Tune Saloon, revealing he was a cross-dresser. It was in fact a bartender, Nora Noonan, who rescued Hogancamp and got him to the hospital just before he might have drowned in the blood filling his lungs. In the film, the attacker Hogancamp starts talking with in the bar has a swastika tattoo, but there was no mention of any such tattoo or neo-Nazi affiliation in press reports or during the trial. Ironically, according to the Welcome to Marwencol book, during his police interrogation, Hommel accused Hogancamp of being a neo-Nazi who thought POWs deserved to die.

The Recovery

Hogancamp is in a coma for nine days after injuries to every part of his body, but especially his head. He wakes up and goes through a long rehab process, learning how to walk, talk, and eat again with the aid of an understanding physical therapist (an underused Janelle Monáe) who provides the model for a doll. He also finds he has no memory of his life before the attack and so has no idea of what he was like or whom he was close to.

Returning home from the hospital, Hogancamp still suffers from PTSD and crippling anxiety. His care consists of home checks from a brisk but caring Russian health visitor (Gwendoline Christie) who leaves notes reminding him to eat and to take his anti-anxiety medication only once a day, advice he ignores to the point of developing a dependency on the pills. Afraid to go out, he becomes increasingly depressed and isolated until he picks up an action figure in a hobby store that becomes his alter ego—Hogie, a sort of cross between William Holden and Lee Marvin—and starts creating the Marwen mythology.*

When he discovers a closet full of women’s shoes that just happen to be in his size, his passion for wearing high heels and stockings is rekindled.

This is largely true. (The physio and the health visitor may be invented, but wearing women’s shoes helped restore his ability to walk without becoming unsteady and lessened his anxiety.) However, there is a significant omission. Hogancamp left the hospital after 43 days not because he was recovered but because his Medicaid ran out. He subsequently received physical, cognitive, and occupational therapy, but only for less than a year because his state-financed insurance stopped paying at that point (he never got psychiatric counseling because it wasn’t covered), and he was thrown back on his own resources. This made him almost angrier than the original beating.

Also, on leaving the hospital, Hogancamp did not move directly into the cute little rural house shown in the film to cope alone but instead went back to his former apartment. A former co-worker at the Anchorage bar and restaurant called Tom (who is omitted from the movie) became his caregiver, helping with the ordinary tasks Hogancamp was still unable to perform due to his poor motor skills. When Tom had to relocate two years later, Hogancamp’s mother (who also does not appear in the movie) moved him into a trailer in Kingston, New York.

Hogancamp rebuilt his frame of reference by watching TV and by perusing his old journals and sketchbooks dating back to 1984 when he first joined the Navy. Although the movie suggests Hogancamp was an accomplished illustrator of WWII comics, in actuality he was an enthusiastic amateur, filling portfolios with images and stories, a fascination kindled by his maternal grandfather, “Papi,” who had served in the German army as a conscript. His actual job was as a carpenter building retail showrooms for a lighting company and trade shows.

The film diverges majorly from reality in its depiction of Hogancamp’s life before the attack. The movie implies the attack completely shattered not only his body but his life, leading to the breakdown of his marriage and contact with his kids. It glosses over his long, ongoing battle with alcoholism before the attack (“I wasn’t aware of the amount he drank,” Tom recalls in the book. “I found about fifty half-gallon liquor bottles in his apartment—under the bed, in the closets, piles of them),” with resulting DUIs, jail time, and a period of homelessness. Even before the attack, his marriage was already well in the past and he was broke.

The spell in the hospital acted as a detox, and Hogancamp found he had no desire to drink again. Divorced from his previous personality, he decided to reject the aggressive, depressed, and often racist man he discovered in the journals and diaries (and who is never really depicted on screen). However, he wanted to embrace the creative side displayed in the sketchbooks and portfolios.

Relationships

The movie’s depiction of Hogancamp as being viewed locally—at least before he became a semi-celebrity—as a sort of lovable eccentric is rather rosy. “In Kingston, he was just that weird guy who walked around dragging a toy jeep,” said Chris Shellen, co-author of the Marwencol book and co-producer of the 2010 documentary.

Steve Carrell in Welcome to Marwen; Mark Hogancamp
Steve Carrell in Welcome to Marwen; Mark Hogancamp.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Marwencol/PBS.

The movie also exaggerates the extent to which Hogancamp has been able to form emotional attachments. He did indeed have a crush on Wendy the waitress (who found him a couple of hours of work per week at the Anchorage) and his neighbor Colleen (the “col” in Marwencol), but both are married and he never declared himself to either, certainly not going so far as to buy a ring and propose to Colleen as he does in the film. However, the women have remained supportive friends.

In the film, Colleen—renamed Nicol and played by Leslie Mann—has a possibly abusive boyfriend who triggers flashbacks in Hogancamp. This is an invented character but he may be a stand-in for the attackers, only three of whom went to prison and all of whom were out and walking around Kingston by 2010.

The movie also invents a clerk at the hobby store where Hogancamp buys his supplies who has a soft spot for him, played by Merritt Wever. It was in fact a couple, the owners of the hobby store, who befriended him and suggested he work with 12-inch dolls after he rediscovered his interest in WWII miniatures but found his hands shook too much to draw or to paint the small figures. The idea that Hogancamp would at this point be open to a romantic relationship is sadly pure Hollywood. “I don’t ever want to get hurt again,” he told the documentarians in 2010.

Instead, his closest relationships in real life continue to be with the dolls. In the movie, he creates a red-headed Nicol doll who becomes Hogie’s bride, but in the actual Marwencol story, Hogie’s true love is a blond Russian princess called Anna Romanov. (Hogancamp’s ex-wife, he discovered in his journals, was named Anastasia.)

Similarly, the film’s femme fatale–cum-villainess is “Deja Thoris, the Belgian witch of Marwencol.” In the film, she represents Hogancamp’s (fictional) addiction to painkillers, telling him, “I’m the only one who understands your pain,” and he ultimately (spoiler alert) locks her up after she betrays Hogie to the Germans. Hogancamp’s own invented narrative is more complicated. Deja is in love with Hogie, but his heart belongs to Anna, leaving her constantly frustrated and sad. Far from locking her up, the real Hogancamp felt sorry for her and so married her in a Marwencol ceremony. He now carries her in a little pouch around his neck. “When he gets upset about something, Deja helps him think through it,” Shellen said. “She’s been a positive force for him.”

Steve Carrell in Welcome to Marwen; Hogie
Steve Carrell’s Hogie in Welcome to Marwen; the real Hogie.*
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures and Marwencol/PBS.

The film makes no mention of what was possibly Hogancamp’s most significant real-life relationship, that with his mother. When Hogancamp’s original Pentax became unusable, she bought him a new megapixel Canon that enabled him to expand his photographic project exponentially, even though she was not initially a big fan of Marwencol. “It was painful for her,” Shellen recalled, to watch her son being nearly beaten to death and then becoming a hermit happiest playing in a doll village.

Marwencol

The film faithfully recreates Marwencol, itself a scale (1-to-6) re-creation of a 1940s Belgian village, complete with a bar, a church, a bank, and a business for Colleen. It also captures Hogancamp’s remarkable attention to detail, whether in tiny propaganda posters and maps, miniature grenades, or cocktails complete with ice. However, as Jon Ronson noted after a 2015 visit, in real life Marwencol is a bit like a soundstage. After the photo is taken, the location is principally plywood and mud, whereas in the movie it remains a collection of beautiful dollhouses at all times.

Discovery

David Naugle, the photographer who got the ball rolling by sending Hogancamp’s photographs to the art magazine, is left out of the movie. Instead, it is the sympathetic hobby-store clerk who sends the photos to a gallery-owner friend. However, even before Naugle’s intervention, Marwencol was not entirely a secret. The enthusiastic reception his photographs received from friends at the Anchorage encouraged Hogancamp to send some off to the Ultimate Soldier fan page. An image called “Rescuing the Major,” still one of Hogancamp’s strongest, even won a contest on the site in 2004.

Correction, Dec. 20, 2018: This piece originally misspelled the name of Hogancamp’s doll alter ego. He is named Hogie, not Hoagie. Also, due to a production error, a caption in this article originally misidentified the subject of a photo. It is not Mark Hogancamp; it is his doll alter ego, Hogie.