Swedish director Jan Troell's Hamsun, starring Max von Sydow, is easily the greatest film I've seen in years. It takes you as far out as you can go -- to the limits of feeling. As a movie about a great and grievous artist made by an artist of equal rank, it is perhaps unique in film history. It's about the final seventeen years in the life of the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature, a man who in his eighties became an ardent defender of Hitler. Hamsun went from being a national hero to a national disgrace. This film plays out the passion of his fall.
Troell, who previously directed the two-part masterpiece The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1973), has once again locked into a great, epic subject -- the enigma of the artist who is also a fascist. He doesn't attempt to "solve" the enigma. The atrocious, beleaguered Hamsun, who died at 92 in 1952, was a supreme writer. His novels Hunger, Mysteries, and Pan are, in their jagged explorations of states of mind, among the greatest works of fiction of the Twentieth Century -- though in fact they were all written in the 1890s. How could an artist so intimately connected to life and suffering also be a champion and a pawn of monsters? It's a paradox that goes to the heart of what it is to be a human being.
Most biographical movies lurch from high point to high point, but Hamsun, which was scripted by Per Olov Enquist, has a fated pull, as if we are watching the ritualistic playing out of some infinitely sad story. It begins with the news that Hitler is dead. With a mixture of pride and fear, Hamsun and his wife Marie (the astonishing Danish actress Ghita Norby), also an ardent Nazi supporter, await their inevitable arrests for treason in the idyllic shelter of their country farm in Norholm. Despite their collusion they seem isolated from each other.
We then move back nine years to 1936, and the roots of that isolation become manifest. In the fields of Norholm, Hamsun and Marie are caught up in a livid, harrowing fight that seems like the summation of a lifetime of bad blood. Twenty-three years her husband's junior, Marie seems dowdy yet ravaged. Hamsun, nearly deaf, his gait rickety, has a practiced patriarchal air. Marie left the stage to marry him, and now she attacks him with a performer's vengeance: "Why did you take up 30 years of my life?" She's still an actress; she sees herself as a ruined innocent. "You've made me old," she says, and he responds, "Yes, we've made each other ugly."
This sequence, coming almost at the start of the movie, grabs you by the throat. It's like suddenly being thrust into an arena marked off by O'Neill or Strindberg (whom Hamsun knew and admired to the point of copying his bristly moustache). The hellishness of a bad marriage carries its own meaning. As this scene plays itself out, we recognize that the couple's hatred for each other binds them. This harrowing dance gives them life.
Despite a professed detestation of the theater, Hamsun is a species of actor himself. He is almost sadistically aware that, by his provocations and deprivations, he has given Marie her greatest part -- the sorrowing wife of a national treasure.
Marie's induction into fascism comes about because Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal), the leader of the Norwegian Nazi Party, recognizes Marie's fierce need to enact an important role. After years playing Hamsun's wife and serving as a party mouthpiece at honorary events, Marie takes on a far larger role; she's wooed by Quisling into reading from Hamsun's agrarian epic The Growth of the Soil at rallies throughout Germany. Dressed in a brightly colored folk costume, flanked by crimson, swastika-emblazoned banners, she luxuriates in her showcase. And yet there is something deeply hard-bitten about this woman -- she knows she has the spotlight only because she is the proxy of a man she both reveres and despises.
Hamsun's family shares this same love/hate, and it tears them up. His children -- two sons, Arild (Gard Eidsvold) and Tore (Eindride Eidsvold), and two daughters, Cecilia (Asa Ssderling) and Ellinor (Anette Hoff, who could have stepped out of an Edvard Munch painting) -- regard him with a mixture of awe and reproach. They pull at him; they want to matter in his life; and yet they also want to be apart from him.
Like the ritual warring between Hamsun and Marie, this dance between Hamsun and his grown-up sons and daughters has a primal, familiar terror. The children of a great artist have a particular burden; they must work their way out of the shadow that both glorifies and effaces them. Hamsun sees his role as father as something akin to serving as squire of the manor. His patriarchy has epic force and, in its dearth of feeling, an epic horror.
And also an epic banality. There is in Hamsun's conduct with his family a parallel with his outrageous embrace of National Socialism. Both are the work of an imperial crank. Hamsun's pro-Nazism -- his belief that Norway would become the crown jewel in the New German Order -- was the flip side of his long-standing and irrational hatred of the British. He was political in a peculiarly instinctual and childlike way.