Hamsun is a riveting biopic about the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian poet-author Knut Hamsun (Hunger and Growth of the Soil his best-known works), who was the only major European artist to support Adolf Hitler during World War II, and who stood trial for treason in 1945 at the age of 86. Hamsun was at the zenith of his fame when German forces moved in to occupy Norway, and his stature might have gone untarnished had not his rabid anti-British newspaper editorials displayed a blind spot toward Nazi wartime atrocities and Hitler's thrust toward continental domination. An unrelenting nationalist, Hamsun blamed the British for Norway's minor role on the European political stage and believed that their readiness to come to Norway's defense against the German occupation was a plot to broaden Britain's sphere of influence on the continent, and in vehement public statements and editorials he accused Britain of being a racist imperialist threat to Europe. That these charges could have been leveled at Germany eluded him-in fact, he was the only literary figure of prominence to pen an admiring obituary of Hitler-until his post-war incarceration, during which he was shown filmed documentation of the Nazi concentration camps.
The film covers the last 17 years of the author's life, which ended in 1952 when he was 93, but it is more than a story of misguided political allegiance. The desolate minefield that was the Hamsun marriage is a potent theme and, in a brilliant portrayal, Max von Sydow embodies the writer's self-involved isolation and his condescending chill toward his embittered wife, Marie (Ghita Nørby, last seen here in The Kingdom), a once-beautiful and popular actress condemned to suffer his emotional aridity and negligence, and their four adult sons and daughters whose youth was spent at boarding schools abroad so as not to interfere with their father's wish to write in solitude. Miraculously, only in Elinor (Anette Hoff), whose alcoholism leads to madness, is the damage visibly apparent. But Marie eases her discontent by fervently embracing National Socialism because of its glorification of marriage and motherhood. Meeting Vidkun Quisling-puppet head of Norway's occupation government, whose name would become synonymous with traitor-she timidly expresses her accord with his views, and recognizing her as the wife of their country's most celebrated author, Quisling sees in her a valuable magnet for attracting women to the Nazi cause. At his urging, she begins to give public readings of Hamsun's poetry and books. Marie Hamsun is an example of the masses being the opiate of politics, for not only did her public appearances draw large audiences, they also ignited her long suppressed professional talent, which in turn served to enhance the national image of Hamsun, whose hearing was rapidly deteriorating. Moreover, he was not conversant in German, while Marie spoke it fluently and relished his dependency on her as a translator. She proudly refered to herself as 'the voice and the ears of Knut Hamsun' and, in furthering her own ambition, seized every opportunity to add nuance and embellishment to his public statements.
The extent to which Hamsun's impaired hearing truly contributed to his Nazi sympathies (as was his defense when he finally was allowed his day in court) remains unresolved, but given the circumstances of his life at the time-the marital discord, partial deafness exacerbated by a language barrier, and years of writer's block that rendered him creatively unproductive with hours passed playing solitaire-one might find some concurrence with those biographers and literary historians who attribute the excesses of his views to Marie's influence and her ambitiously motivated Nazi fervor. Like being a little bit pregnant, it is a moot argument, since their support ultimately led to their post-war incarceration-Marie in prison, Hamsun in a mental institution before his transfer to a rest home by a psychiatrist looking to advance his career through in-depth observation of the great writer.
Hamsun is an intriguing case study of the corrosive power of art over love and intimacy; that the couple's marital bond was not only sustained but appears to have grown inviolable, right up until his death, is somehow, perversely ennobling. In the end, as in all of his personal relationships, Hamsun had his way and, desiring to regain the respect of his nation and clear his name, stood trial. He received an enormous fine that nearly ruined him, and in his final masterpiece, On Overgrown Paths, written in 1949 when he was 90 years old, he presented his interpretation of the case.
Swedish director Jan Troell has assembled an extraordinary cast headed by the veteran von Sydow (who starred in Troell's The Emigrants) in a tour de force performance as Hamsun, and Denmark's leading star of television, film and stage, Ghita Nørby, and an outstanding supporting complement from Sweden, Denmark and Norway.