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.
In Hamsun's first and perhaps greatest book, Hunger, we seem to be residing right inside the circuitry of a desperate man's mind; the first-person narrative has a shifting, frantic obsessiveness. Hamsun brought to his real-life political affiliations a similar quality of dreadful waywardness. He was a dabbler. There's a shimmering black comic moment in Hamsun when the writer meets with Terboven (Edgar Selge), Norway's vicious Reichskommissar, who compliments him on a particularly flagrant anti-Semitic passage from one of his newspaper screeds. Hamsun says he has no hatred for the Jews, and when Terboven asks if he's read Mein Kampf, Hamsun replies, "No, but I read the reviews."
Primarily because of his films with Ingmar Bergman, von Sydow has become for the world the iconic Scandinavian -- as iconic a personage, perhaps, as was the real-life Knut Hamsun in his glory and disgrace. The Scandinavians like a fine pitch of suffering in their iconography; they want their heroes to anguish mightily for them, and von Sydow brings a great gravity to that anguish. But his performances for Troell -- in The Emigrants, The New Land, and The Flight of the Eagle (1978) -- are every bit as good as his work with Bergman. Even better perhaps, because Troell brings out a more human-scaled plangency.
In Hamsun von Sydow gives what could well be the performance of a lifetime. He may be playing an enigma, but he charges the role with a full-bodied comprehension of what age and pride and ruination can do to a man. His awesome understanding of character is a tribute to Hamsun, the great psychological novelist (who, ironically, closed himself off from self-understanding). And yet people looking for "answers" to Hamsun's political pathologies won't find them in this film, because Troell and von Sydow aren't looking for simple causation. There are no "Rosebuds" in Hamsun. But you can sense in von Sydow's performance how this gruff, brittle dignitary might have taken up with the Nazis as a way to fire his flagging powers. Hamsun was a man who needed to work in the face of hostility; as a young writer he would give lecture tours denouncing Ibsen and Tolstoy. In his old age, what better fuel for opprobrium than Nazism?
There are two extended sequences in Hamsun in which von Sydow is unsurpassed. The first is Hamsun's meeting with Hitler (Ernst Jacobi) in the fYhrer's Alpine aerie. (Their dialogue together is based on actual transcripts.) Hamsun has engaged the meeting to protest Reichskommissar Terboven's brutality, but the confab goes disastrously wrong. Hitler wants to talk about art, and Hamsun, who has been feverishly rehearsing his words, wants only to secure Hitler's assurances. The old man's tactless desperation turns him into an enraged supplicant. When Hitler turns on him in a fury, it's as if Hamsun is mugged of his own reason. He seems horrifically foolish and endangered, and the bright Alpine air suddenly seems thick with a thousand invisible knives.
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The second sequence is Hamsun's speech before the Norwegian court trying him for treason after the war. Kept from public view by the authorities, confined to nursing homes and psychiatric wards, Hamsun is a wraith everyone expects to expire conveniently. But this unrepentant man who earlier had wished to die now lives only to defend himself.
Just before his defense, we see Hamsum viewing concentration camp footage and running aghast from the projection room. Now, for his day in court, he puts up a decorous front, but his clipped words have no steel. He concludes by saying, "I am at peace with myself." He then sits down and closes his eyes, but we see no great peace. Hamsun is already separating his soul from his body. He has the look of a man burning in passage.
There is an awe in this film -- and a horror -- at what a human being is capable of doing. Hamsun is no apologia, but it is a supremely humanist indictment. In the end the furies that have lashed out at the old man pass away. We seem to be watching the bejeweled closing of a dark fairy tale. This pastoralism is part of the story too; it's the beauty at the heart of the enigma. Hamsun and Marie nestle together under a lush laburnum tree, and it's as if time itself is weeping. What Troell has given us in Hamsun is a benediction for man's bewildered fate.
Written by Per Olov Enquist; directed by Jan Troell; with Max von Sydow, Ghita Norby, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Edgar Selge, and Ernst Jacobi. January 16 through 18 and January 23 through 25 at Bill Cosford Cinema, University of Miami. See "Showtimes" for schedule or call 284-6902.