The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: August 28 - September 4, 1997

[Film Culture]

| reviews & features | by movie | by theater | by time and neighborhood | film specials | hot links |

Knut case

Troell and von Sydow ennoble Hamsun

by Peter Keough

HAMSUN, Directed by Jan Troell. Written by Per Olov Enquist based on the book by Thorkild Hansen. With Max von Sydow, Ghita Nørby, Anette Hoff, Asa Söderling, Eindride Eidsvold, Gard B. Eidsvold, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Edgar Selge, and Ernst Jacobi. A First Run Features release. At the Museum of Fine Arts September 3 through 20.

Hamsun Ezra Pound, Ferdinand Céline, Knut Hamsun -- not many great artists embraced the Nazi cause, but enough to cast doubt on the sanctity of their calling. The circumstances of the last-named, superbly dramatized in Jan Troell's searing Hamsun, are perhaps the most pathetic. Author of Hunger, Pan and The Growth of the Soil, revered by his native Norway, and winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize, Hamsun opted in old age for ignominy by siding with Quisling and the occupying German army during World War II. In a harrowing scene early in the film, a little girl tosses one of his books at his feet and demands to know why he was a traitor. With a child's uncompromising clarity, and an old man's convoluted reflectiveness, Hamsun provides the sometimes unpalatable, ultimately moving answer to that question.

Hamsun's tragedy began at an age when most lives are coming to an end. It's 1935, and the 76-year-old novelist, portrayed by Max von Sydow in the consummate performance of his career, makes an absurd spectacle of himself by chasing down a white hen at his country estate and beating it to death with his walking stick for costing him "a day's work." In a furious confrontation, his wife, Marie (a shrill and heartbreaking Ghita Nørby), accuses him of not doing any work for years, of "whoring" his ideals, of betraying the 30 years she has sacrificed for him. Knut moves out to an inn in Oslo, and in his absence Marie is seduced by the politics of Nationalist Party leader Vidkun Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal), a man she sees as true to his ideals. Realizing the advantage of having an endorsement from Marie's renowned husband, Quisling persuades her to reconcile with him.

All politics, Troell recognizes, arises from the basic political units of the couple and family. Although Hamsun always claimed his support for Quisling and later for Hitler was due to his desire to see Norway take its place as a first-rate nation in the "German Empire" and his hatred of British Imperial "arrogance," Troell makes the excruciatingly convincing case that it derived largely from a bad marriage and a twisted home life. The sad lives of Hamsun's spoiled and neglected children may be given short shrift, with the emphasis on his alcoholic daughter Ellinor (Anette Hoff), but few films have captured the subtle manipulations, deceits, sacrifices and betrayals of two damaged people in such a long, mutually destructive relationship.

Taking advantage of her husband's literal deafness and willing blindness to the evils of the system he's joined, Marie becomes his "ears and voice," encouraging him to write editorials urging resistance fighters to put down their arms and extolling the need for and inevitability of Nazi victory. Meanwhile, she exploits her position of power to resurrect the acting career she believes she abandoned for Knut's sake, going on tour through Norway and Germany to give pompous readings from her husband's novels, in effect co-opting his authorship.

Troell seems dangerously close to a misogynist interpretation of the events, blaming the downfall of a great but deluded man on the machinations of a wicked, self-serving woman. Max von Sydow's performance makes it clear that this is not the case. He gets the tremors, the tics, the cantankerousness of senescence down pat, but what makes his Hamsun evoke not just pity but Lear-like fear is his grasp of the man's hubris, power, pigheadedness, and conscious self-betrayal. The icon's massive façade of righteousness and genius crumbles before a series of confrontations -- with the child who calls him a traitor, with the parents of neighbors whose menfolk are being tortured in Gestapo prisons, with Terboven (Edgar Selge), the brutal head of the occupation, with Hitler (Ernst Jacobi), and most painfully with the psychiatrists and jurists who try to analyze and judge him after the war.

Except for some sophomoric symbolism (the ongoing clock motif), Troell offers von Sydow the blithest and lushest of frameworks for his craft, letting the years pass in a series of brilliantly composed episodes, and allowing the arc of Hamsun's tragedy and the fire of the story's passions to be sustained through the film's continually absorbing 160-minute length. Knut Hamsun may have betrayed the cause of art, but Troell's film goes a long way toward redeeming it by making that betrayal comprehensible and tragic -- itself a work of art.

[Movies Footer]

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1997 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.