Friday November 21, 1997
A little girl approaches a tall, distinguished-looking old man, throws a book at him and, saying her mother told her to, asks, "Why did you become a traitor?" In his remarkably compelling 160-minute "Hamsun," veteran Swedish writer-director Jan Troell succeeds stunningly in making us understand how Norwegian novelist and poet Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for literature, came to be one of the few major European artists to support Hitler.
As Hamsun, Max Von Sydow crowns a long, distinguished and richly varied career with arguably his greatest portrayal, of a literary lion in winter, a great, tragically naive writer coming to terms with his failures as a man and as a patriot as he copes with encroaching age.
The epic scale comes naturally to Troell, long one of Sweden's finest filmmakers and best known for "The Emigrants" and its sequel, "The New Land." The saga of Hamsun, whom the king of Norway proclaimed was his country's very soul, demands such scope, even though Hamsun is already 76 when we meet him in 1935. It is a darkening period for Hamsun, suffering from a loss of self-respect over his long-term writer's block, as well as for all of Europe.
Marie (formidable Ghitta Norby, grande dame of Norway's actresses), his 22-years-younger wife of nearly 30 years, lashes out at him in her despair for having made her give up her career as an actress, for banishing their four children from his presence as soon as they disturbed the peace he demanded as a writer and, above all, for failing to live up to the ideals he proclaimed in his work.
Their marriage has deteriorated to the point that Hamsun leaves his immense country manor house to go off to live in an inn in Oslo for a year. What brings the Hamsuns to the point of a wary truce is their common admiration for Adolf Hitler.
The impassioned speeches of Norwegian Nazi leader Vikun Quisling stressing idealism, family solidarity and respect and opportunity for women enthrall Marie, whose several books for children have been popular in Germany. (During World War II even youngsters knew "quisling" as an expression meaning "traitor.") Hamsun loathes the imperialism of the British and buys into Hitler's promise that Norway will have a more prominent role to play in the new world order.
Marie swiftly becomes an all-out Nazi convert and her facility in German, a language her increasingly deaf husband does not speak, causes her to speak for him, often in terms more strongly than he actually believes or states. No wonder Hamsun's longtime publisher remarks in dismay to a colleague in regard to his client, "To think that the Germans have such a magic flute at their disposal."
It's only when the German Army of Occupation starts turning Norway "into a blood bath," to borrow the description Hamsun uses in a humiliating visit to Hitler to plead to the Fuhrer to stop destroying Norway, that Hamsun begins to grasp the specter of Nazi evil. With the end of World War II Hamsun commences the final, most dramatic chapter of his life.
When you consider the countless movies that sail by without a thought in mind it is amazing what "Hamsun" accomplishes.
It is above all a cautionary tale about the artist isolating himself from the world and from his family at great peril. It is a love story at its most tempestuous and agonized. It is a World War II picture told from an unusual and provocative perspective, and as such, a splendid period piece. It is a haunting portrait of valiant old age.
As formal in style as Von Sydow's Hamsun is, it is work of profound psychological insight, grasping firmly the conflicting motives and emotions of the human heart. "Hamsun" is easily one of the year's finest films.
Hamsun, 1997. Unrated. A First Run Features release. Director-cinematographer Jan Troell. Producer Erik Crone. Executive producer Lars Kolvig. Screenplay by Per Olov Enquist; based on the book "Processen mod Hamsun" by Thorkild Hansen. Editors Ghita Beckendorff and Troell. Music Arvo Part, Johann Strauss and Richard Wagner. In Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Max Von Sydow as Knut Hamsun. Ghitta Norby as Marie Hamsun. Erik Hivju as Psychiatrist. Ernst Jacobi as Adolf Hitler.