Hamsun (Denmark/Sweden, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Nobel prize winning writer. Nazi sympathizer. Deep thinker. Naive fool. To some, Knut Hamsun was a hero, but to most, he was a villain and a coward who sold out to Hitler for the price of safety and respect. In Hamsun, a powerful 1996 feature from renowned Swedish director Jan Troell (The Emigrants), the tragedy of Hamsun's life is laid bare before the camera over a 17 year period (from 1935 until his death in 1952). This is a singularly striking and unforgettable portrayal of a great man whose hubris led to his fall. Shakespearean in its approach and structure, Hamsun represents the first time I have ever felt real pity and sorrow for a figure linked by history to the rise of the Third Reich.

In his heyday, Hamsun was one of the most revered men in Norway. Awarded the 1920 Nobel Prize for literature, he became a national hero. But, during Hitler's rise in the '30s and '40s, Hamsun sided with Quisling's puppet government, and, in the years after World War II, his very name was anathema. The reasons for Hamsun's political stance are a key aspect of this riveting drama. Was it because, as he publicly declared, he harbored an intense hatred of British imperialism and believed the best path for a free Norway was to side with Germany? Or was there a more personal influence, such as the singleminded drive of his wife? Hamsun offers a wealth of possibilities, but no real answers. The film also makes it clear that, although the title character supported Hitler, he failed to comprehend the depth of the German leader's anti-Semitism, and the lengths to which he would go to carry out his genocidal goals.

As the elderly Hamsun, Max von Sydow gives the crowning performance of an impeccable career. Cantankerous, aloof, thoughtful, intellectually astute, and, in the end, frail and emotionally ruined, von Sydow's Hamsun is a fully realized individual. Nearly his match is co-star Ghita Nørby, who portrays Hamsun's controlling, bitter wife, Marie. (She previously worked opposite von Sydow in the Ingmar Bergman-scripted The Best Intentions). Knut and Marie's union is as dysfunctional as a marriage can get, and the actors effectively present complex interpretations of characters whose vicious psychological struggles have bound them together while scarring their children.

Working with a brilliant cast, Troell is at the height of his powers. One scene in particular stands out. Hamsun, granted an audience with Hitler (Ernst Jacobi), loses his dignity and stature as he breaks down while pleading for Norway's autonomy. It is one of the most wrenching scenes of any '90s movie, standing alongside memorable moments from Schindler's List, Dead Man Walking, Saving Private Ryan, or any other film. At 160 minutes, Hamsun probably runs a little too long, and there are a few slow parts, but the cumulative effect is devastating. Hamsun goes to extraordinary lengths to present one of history's villains as nothing more demonic than a deeply flawed human being.

Hamsun (Denmark/Sweden, 1996)

Run Time: 2:40
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Danish, German, Norwegian, and S
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1