Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hamsun is an absorbing biographical movie about the Norwegian literary genius Knut Hamsun, who won a Nobel Prize in 1920 but made the calamitous choice of supporting Hitler and the Nazis during WW2. More than the story of an unfortunate traitor, this lengthy film is also about a terrible marriage and the difficulty of dealing with an irascible and temperamental artist. Aloof and isolated on his country estate, Hamsun and his unhappy wife Marie turn themselves into patsies for the German occupiers of their homeland.
Max von Sydow is better than ever in this late-career effort -- it's one of the best portraits of old age ever put on film. And Ghita Nørby equals him in scene after scene of marital conflict and political folly.
Soon before the start of WW2, 'national treasure' poet and author Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow) and his wife Marie (Ghita Nørby) are already 35 years into a bitter marriage interrupted by screaming arguments. He even stays away for a year, renting a room at an inn. As war looms in Europe, they gravitate toward pro-German sentiments. Knut accepts awards from cautious Nazi diplomats looking for local support, and Marie becomes a strong supporter of Vidkun Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal), a fervent Norwegian Fascist. When war breaks out Knut appears in print praising the Nazi occupiers and encouraging citizens not to resist. This earns him favor with the Nazi overseer Terboven (Edgar Selge). Both Knut and Marie are disturbed by the harsh penalties dealt to captured resistance fighters, but when they ask for mercy for local boys sentenced to death Terboven loses interest in them. Knut is invited to meet Hitler (Ernst Jacobi) at his Bavarian retreat, a meeting that goes disastrously wrong when the old poet insists on talking about Norwegian independence instead of artistic inspirations. With the war almost finished, Knut is still voicing his unpopular opinions in the papers, and even writes a eulogy for Hitler.
Dissent and disagreement with one's government are covered by free speech and the right of every man to voice his opinion. But there are also collaborators and outright traitors who openly seek the downfall of their country in wartime. What is one to do with an honorable person with stubborn ideas that are just dead wrong? Knut Hamsun wrote brilliant books as a young man back in the 1880s (!) that made him a giant of world literature. But his understanding of human nature and his experience with poverty didn't protect him from extremist views about Germany and England. For Norwegian artists of the late 19th century, liberal Germany was the place to go to be recognized and understood when the conservative atmosphere in Oslo became too stifling (see the terrific Peter Watkins film, Edvard Munch). England was an intolerant colonial superpower that oppressed Ireland, India and big parts of Africa, including the Boer country. Hamsun was fond of reminding us that the English were the ones that invented the concept of the concentration camp. 1
Hamsun was already 76 when WW2 broke out and had been living in virtual isolation for decades. Like many stubborn, fossilized old men, he felt secure in his intolerant ideas. Knut is mostly unaffected when he takes the side of the occupiers; Norway was occupied but never conquered in the sense that the general public cooperated as little as possible. Armed resistance began immediately; the Norwegians responded to Hitler with obscenities and bullets.
Against the advice of his publisher, Hamsun embraces Hitler in print while his wife works out her frustrations (her marriage meant the end of her dramatic career) by touring under Nazi sponsorship to recite her husband's works. The most withering scenes in the film show Marie in traditional Norwegian dress on a stage festooned with swastikas, and Knut acknowledging a hero's reception in Vienna. An interpreter delivers his speech -- he wishes Godspeed to Hitler's victory (thunderous audience approval) and independence for Norway (polite applause). As in Aesop's fable about the unarmed trumpeter executed along with the fighting soldiers, we have to acknowledge that Knut and Marie are giving aid and comfort to the enemy and prolonging Norway's agony. It's not enough to be committed and outspoken, one has to be informed and reasonable as well. There's also no doubt but that the Hamsuns used their newfound popularity to avoid dealing with their lousy marriage. In their big argument Marie wails about having her stage career stolen by a selfish husband; now she has to play the role of the wife of a literary King. Knut shoots back that she's therefore been able to remain an actress after all.
Director Jan Troell (The Emigrants, The New Land) fills his story with telling exchanges. Marie's meeting with the pasty-faced Quisling is like a sexless lover's rendezvous. Hamsun meets the despised occupation overlord Terboven, not realizing that the man officiates over a standard Nazi Reign of Terror. Terboven stops trying to win over the poet when he realizes that the old man is already quite committed to Hitler's conquests. Hamsun is still dealing with anti-English prejudices dating from 1903, is grossly ignorant of the big picture, and offers idle anti-Semitic remarks of his own.
Hamsun admires the beautiful views from Hitler's Bavarian stronghold and is warmly welcomed by the frustrated painter, who wants to know if the poet finds artistic inspiration in the morning or the evening. Partially deaf, Hamsun acts true to form and hammers through on his insistence for Norwegian independence after victory. When Hitler realizes that he can't control the conversation, he just walks away in frustration.
None of this would have happened if not for Hamsun's fame, which both protects the poet and allows him to get in big trouble. When the war is over both he and his wife are arrested. She serves time but a pack of ambitious psychiatrists see a career in probing Knut's artistic contradictions and the author must petition to have his day in court. The shrinks trick Marie into divulging marital secrets that Knut won't. Knut bitterly resents Marie but the process brings their differences out into the open. At his trial he honestly and humbly expresses his failings and mistakes. Hamsun loses his fortune, but he and Marie are reunited before his death in 1952.
It's an amazing life with some provoking messages. The film doesn't cover Marie and Knut's five children very well and we only get glimpses of one daughter who becomes an alcoholic mess and a son who volunteers to fight for Germany. But overall it holds our attention from one end to another ... there are no slow passages. We're especially impressed by von Sydow's doddering old man, still sharp and proud but aware that most people consider him a senile misanthrope. He started out as an 'angry young artist' writing about freezing poverty on the streets of Kristiana (Oslo) ... is this what becomes of 'angry young men?"
I remember reading about Hamsun's book Hunger in junior high school, but my teacher redirected me to something more 'acceptable.' Now I enter two words into the search engine Google and come up with the entire text of Hunger, ready to read. What an amazing world we have. There's no longer an excuse to be ignorant.
First Run Features' DVD of Hamsun is an acceptable transfer of this long movie. The flat letterboxed transfer does the film no favors and the colors have a transferred-from-a-print harshness. Subtitles are not removable and in fact float in narrow black boxes that might be covering up other subs in the source print. Many DVD distributors like First Run bid for films from providers on a take-it-or-leave-it basis insofar as transfers are concerned. I'm really happy I got to see Hamsun but secretly wish it had been given a more generous presentation, like Home Vision Entertainment's beautiful Kristin Lavransdatter.
Text extras give nutshell bios and filmographies for the director and the two stars and were obviously translated -- von Sydow's film The Kremlin Letter is listed as Letter from the Kremlin. We're also reminded of Ghita Nørby's fun performance in Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom; she and von Sydow make a terrific acting couple.
From other sources I'm informed that while many of the actors (including the man playing Quisling) speak Norwegian in the film, Ms. Nørby is heard in Danish and German and Max von Sydow in Swedish. These languages have similarities but are no more compatible than Spanish and Italian so it sounds like sort of a tongue-soup situation. Apparently Scandinavians have little trouble accepting various kinds of subtitling patterns!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Good --
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: text bios, photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 18, 2006
1. Where did he get that notion? Is there any truth to it?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson