First Run Features // 1996 // 154 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 23rd, 2006
A man of words must stand by them.
In 1920, Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (Max Von Sydow, The Seventh Seal) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. By 1939, he was a flagrant Nazi sympathizer. During the war he waged a battle of words between the occupying forces of Germany and the perplexed people of his homeland. They wondered how a man so deeply committed to his country could ever consider the presence of the Reich as beneficial. What they didn't know was that Hamsun was a political plebeian, his ill-considered ideas a combination of his wife Maria's potent preaching, the substantive soft soap offered by the government, his own irrational beliefs, and a combination of lip service and exploitation by Hitler's regime. By the time the war was over, Hamsun was disenchanted and bitter. However, the biggest blow came when he and his wife were arrested as traitors. It seems that the discovery of the infamous concentration camps made the mere thought of supporting the Nazis an inexcusable crime. Still, Hamsun was the nation's muse and it was hard to argue high treason against such a treasure. The path that he and his family walked from the 1930s to the end of his life is illustrated in Jan Troell's bulky biography, a movie that constantly veers from Hamsun's small story to the big picture of a world at war.
It remains the defining moment of the 20th Century. The reason we refer to it as WORLD War II is because it seemed like all the nations of the planet were affected. As a result, every country has their own particular tale to spin about how Hitler and his Nazis redefined and reshaped their sense of sovereignty. Obvious entries from France, Britain, Poland, and the United States dominate the landscape, but there were impacts both simple and severe in almost all of Europe. Hamsun is proof of this particular narrative nationalism. Focusing on Norway's problematic poet laureate (and Nobel winner for literature) Knut Hamsun, this epic attempt at showing the Third Reich's treachery is different from most WWII films. Instead of exposing us to battles and bombers, director Jan Troell wants to explore the evils of the Fuhrer from the inside out. By using Hamsun, a literal god amongst his Nordic brethren, and exposing his arcane ideas about British domination and imperialism, the perfect Nazi dupe is deposited at the center of our story. Then under the influence of his perplexing politics, his domineering victim of a wife, and a select group of German/Norwegian officials, Hamsun is lured into playing propagandist. Sick of the stories he hears about mined fjords, innocent deaths, and re-education camps, Hamsun does a disturbing thing: he hails Hitler while arguing that, if his regime succeeds, Norway will become a prominent part in the new, nationalistic Europe.
Of course, Hamsun was wrong. Still, with the fear of determined destruction hanging over the people, the press and the politicians allow him to stir up support. No one could be happier than his 30-year personal representative, his former actress spouse Marie. As essayed by Ghita Nørby in a stunning performance, she is the Lady to Hamsun's MacBeth. When we first meet the couple, they are screaming outside the stately country manor that Hamsun's writing has wrought. They are a deeply wounded couple, each one complaining of emotional vacancy and physical detachment. It is a very important scene, as it will mark their married life for the next dozen years. Depressed over the state of her relationship, Marie stumbles upon a town meeting for the newly-arriving Nazis. She learns that Hitler holds families in the highest regard and sees women in particular as being the pillars of the Reich's power. For a wife who has always had to follow in her husband's sainted footsteps (she gave up the theater and her children's books are always compared to Knut's award-winning works), this message of meaning is a godsend. Determined to serve "the cause," she uses her hatred for Hamsun as a catalyst to creating a place for herself. Of course, she's being used as much as the aging poet, but hers is a determined abuse, even if she's unaware of the numerous Nazi dead ends.
As a personal story, Hamsun is fine. Troell treats Maria and Knut like the frazzled and frayed fatalities they are -- he from she and visa versa. However, once he steps outside the immediate marital dynamic, the movie loses a lot of its energy. Subplots abound, some interesting (the Norwegian official who fancies himself a bold blond Aryan), some static (Ellinor, the couple's daughter is a raving lush for no apparent reason except historical accuracy). The mandatory scenes with the Nazi officials are well done, since they illustrate how backhanded and cunning these bureaucratic bastards could be. Of course there is the required conference with Hitler and, while the sitdown shows how unstable the Fuhrer was, Hamsun comes off as fairly unhinged himself. Make no mistake -- Max Van Sydow is exceptional in the role. Still, this part of his performance is painful. We know that the septuagenarian is only looking out for his country, but a confrontation of this magnitude with the leader of your occupying enemy is deadly. Hamsun wants assurances and promises that Hitler never intends -- or intended -- to give. Another undermining issue here is the scope of Hamsun's story. Though it's only comprised of the man's final few years of life, Troell is determined to touch on each and every detail within them. This means the movie must be 154 minutes long and deal with an hour of biography after the Nazis have surrendered.
Granted, there is some good material here. It's no real spoiler to say that the poet and his wife are charged as traitors, with Maria jailed while the country's crown literary jewel is jostled around from mental hospital to nursing home in an effort to avoid a trial. Certainly this is Troell's attempt to tie in another theme from the opening. Maria weeps bitterly that, while their son can commit to fighting on the front, her half-baked husband never committed himself to anything. Now nearly 90, he fights for his right to be heard before the court. This section is poignant mostly because Sydow is given some meaty material to work with. Maria spills the beans to a government psychiatrist about their interpersonal strife. Naturally Knut confronts her in a tender, heartbreaking brush-off. Similarly, the actor gets to deliver a self-denouncing monologue in front of the judge, the kind of scene-stealing performance showcase that wins awards. Yet there is still more movie to come. We have to deal with Hamsun's desire to get his final book published, an elegiac apology to his countrymen entitled On Overgrown Paths. Clearly his coda adds considerable depth to the Hamsun story, but as we've walked through over two hours of this man's amazing life, we feel worn out and ready for a rest. While it could have narrowed its focus to become a classic biopic, Hamsun attempt to be all encompassing. This makes for a good, not great, look at Norway and the Nazis.
First Run Features salvages this title, already more than 10 years old, from its almost un-releasable foreign films. Americans are notorious for their hatred of subtitles and, unless Roberto Benigni is about to do his Italian simpleton shtick, movies from other countries get little or no audience attention. Sadly, nothing about this release will change that fact. Horribly hobbled by a terrible transfer, Hamsun has so many technical problems that it's hard to list them all. First, there are the washed-out images. While some already consider the snowbound region pale and colorless, the lack of cinematic hues here is all in the masterings. Details are also lost in the foggy, muddy print. This looks like one of those horrendous PAL-to-NTSC conversions that fails to make the necessary adjustments to keep the visuals flowing. Several times, the action onscreen ghosts and blurs, with tremendous pixelization during the few night scenes. Between the stuttering image and digital defects, this is a disaster of a DVD. Only the obvious, black-boxed subtitles shine, and even then, they take up valuable frame space, marring Troell's artistic attempts. The extras are unexceptional, the lack of any real context a crime against Hamsun's history (and no, the nominal text biography doesn't count).
In essence, it's a shame that this is not a better film. Von Sydow and Nørby are pitch perfect, and their scenes sizzle with an emotional energy the rest of the film lacks. Norway's national soul was shaken when their beloved author seemed to turn his back on everything the country held near and dear. Perhaps had they known Hamsun as well as this film does, they'd have been quicker to forgive. Flawed and far too broad in approach, this is still an engaging and occasionally powerful portrait of artistic arrogance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Norwegian, with German and English)
Running Time: 154 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Cast/Crew Biographies
* Knut Hamsun Biography
* WWII Film Collection Preview