A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.
The film is based on a true story.
Mark Hogancamp is an artist and photographer whose life was dramatically changed when five neo-nazis beat him within an inch of his life after he told them he likes to wear women’s shoes. Stuck with PTSD, Mark crafts the village of Marwen (named after himself and Wendy, the woman who found him after the attack) where he makes figures of the women he’s met in his life who have helped him pick himself up.
Mark continues to struggle with his fear of the men who beat him, especially knowing he has to be in court for their sentencing. When he fails to make it through the first time, he attends the postponed sentence to tell the men that they can’t hurt him anymore, and that he is learning to move on.
Mark later hosts a photography exhibit featuring his work, and he indicates that he is ready to keep moving forward in life.
The film opens in a WWII setting over Belgium in the fictional town of Marwen. Captain Hogie (Steve Carell) is flying through the skies, trying to fight off German soldiers until his plane is shot down, causing him to crash-land. His feet catch fire and his shoes are ruined. Hogie then finds a briefcase with women’s clothing inside, but he is most partial to the high heels, and he wears them. He walks until he comes across a group of nazis who proceed to mock him for his shoes. Hogie kicks the nazi captain in the groin before the others start to gang up on him and beat him. Before they can finish him, a team of gun-toting women emerge and shoot the nazis dead. Hogie approaches one of the women, Wendy (Stefanie Von Pfetten). In real life, Hogie’s creator and counterpart Mark Hogancamp is trying to take a picture of the scene outside, but is interrupted when a truck outside ruins the scene.
Mark puts the Wendy doll away along with other nazi dolls he has deemed “dead”. He takes out a doll of a Belgian witch he calls Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), which is a parallel of Mark’s pill addiction. Across the street, Mark sees that a new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), is moving in. She is approached by her obnoxious ex-boyfriend Kurt (Neil Jackson), and Nicol tries to tell him to go away.
Mark lives alone and suffers from PTSD as a result of a violent beatdown he received from five neo-nazis (which the doll nazis are based off of) after telling them he likes to wear women’s shoes. He is visited once a month by his Russian caretaker Anna (Gwendolyn Christie). She, like many people in Mark’s life, knows of Marwen and the fact that one of the dolls is based off of her. Mark goes through scrapbooks and photo albums to try and get a sense of what his life was before the beating. He was married to a real-life Wendy at one point. Another set of photos show him in rehab with Julie (Janelle Monae), an Iraq vet who lost one of her legs out there.
Back in Marwen, Hogie meets a French milkmaid named Elsa (Siobhan Williams). He brings her back to the bar where he reconvenes with Anna, Julie, Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez), Roberta (Merritt Wever), and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis). Elsa tries to thank Hogie with a kiss for helping her, but she is gunned down by a nazi in a tower. The other women grab their guns and fire upon the nazi, who falls from the tower and splits in two. Hogie tries to save Elsa, but she passes on. Moments later, Deja arrives and zaps Elsa into non-existence, terrifying the other women. It is because of Deja’s magic that the nazis also don’t stay dead.
Mark receives a phone call from his lawyer, who reminds him that the sentencing for his assailants is later that week, and it is imperative that Mark attend and face his attackers. The whole thought of it terrifies Mark and sends him into a panic.
Mark goes to a bar where he helps out (the same place where he was attacked), and where the real Carlala works. He asks about Wendy, who also used to work there (she was the one who found him after the assault), and Carlala tells him that Wend moved to somewhere in California.
Later, Mark goes to a doll store where the real Roberta works. She invites him out to dinner later in the week, but he makes excuses for not wanting to go. He picks out a doll that is supposed to be based off Nicol. Roberta offers Mark a limited edition nazi doll, which starts to trigger Mark’s anxiety again. He accidentally presses his hand down on the remote, which raises the volume on the TV just as a news report on the sentencing and Mark’s attack is playing. It freaks him out and he runs out of the store without taking anything.
Roberta goes to Mark’s house to give him the doll, while also noticing that he is in the middle of a scenario in which her top has come off (again). Nicol overhears their conversation and walks to the back to introduce herself. Roberta realizes that this is the same woman Mark named the other doll after. Mark shows Nicol his models in Marwen and explains their roles in his life, as well as how “Marwen” is a combination of Mark and Wendy, although we later find out that Suzette is just based off a porn actress Mark fancies.
Mark later makes his Nicol doll and incorporates her into a scenario in which Captain Hogie is taken by the nazis, so Nicol joins the other women in a rescue mission. They find the nazis and throw Molotov cocktails at them, burning them to death.
Roberta picks Mark up during the week to bring him to the courthouse for the sentencing. As the judge speaks to the attackers, Mark starts to picture everything in a Marwen-esque scenario where the nazis starts shooting everyone in the place. Mark freaks out and flees the courtroom. His lawyer talks to the judge for a recess, but she postpones the sentencing until later in the month.
Mark starts to spend more time with Nicol, falling in love with her. This is paralleled in Marwen where Hogie and Nicol fall in love, but Hogie is too scared to let anyone in his life. Mark visits Nicol’s house where she gives him muffins, but the moment is ruined when Kurt comes by to be a dick and taunt Mark over the dolls after he saw them in his backyard.
Mark later tries to propose to Nicol with a Purple Heart medal as their Marwen figures did, but Nicol tries to clarify that she only sees Mark as a friend. Without a word, Mark leaves when Nicol has her back turned.
The strain from reality becomes too much for Mark, and he contemplates suicide by overdose. This carries on into Marwen where Nicol is shot and is in critical condition. The other Marwen women tend to her just before the nazis, now led by Kurt’s counterpart Major Meyer, start to attack. A battle rages on until Hogie is found by Deja in a time machine (that is supposed to look like the DeLorean), where she appears to try and help, but Hogie finds out she has been a spy for the nazis and has been keeping them alive. Hogie defies her and says he is free from her power. Meyer tries to shoot Hogie but instead shoots Deja, causing her to blast herself into the future and also causing the nazis to die. Nicol also turns out to be alive.
Mark returns to the courthouse with his friends there to support him. He reads a statement aloud to everyone, but mostly addressing the nazis. He says that although they took something personal from him, they can no longer hurt him since he has his art and his friends. This even brings some of the neo-nazis to tears.
Mark later attends a photography exhibit featuring his work on Marwen, which he has now renamed Marwencol to honor Nicol. She shows up briefly and smiles at Mark after viewing his work. He then makes plans with Roberta to get sushi.
Mark is then seen walking home with his dolls while wearing high heels.
There is a final text stating that Mark Hogancamp lives in upstate New York and continues to expand the world of Marwencol. We then see a picture of Mark with his own little Captain Hogie.