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I expected an entirely different movie. Having read a single review when
Hamsun was released, and having heard of him only from listings of Nobel
Prize winners, I thought this would be about the traducing of a man's
loyalty to country, the political evolution of an intellectual celebrity's
thinking. It's not.
The movie is instead one of the most penetrating looks at a distinctive and more often than not failing, marriage I've ever seen. The examination begins after the couple have already been married 35 years; they are a tempestuous, often bitter, and jealous former author of children's books (and in youth, an actress) who desires love from her spouse - and a proud selfish ill-tempered intellectual author who lives in splendid rural isolation and admits his wife's nature disappoints him. The story of marriage is simply fascinating - even though the relations with their five children are cryptically portrayed.
It would be hard to ever better von Sydow's performance as Hamsun (or even as a man growing very old) - or the actress (previously unknown to me)who played his wife - they are simply astounding. I definitely recommend this movie - it is in the same vein as Cries and Whispers or Scenes from a Marriage.
The question I thought the film would address - the responsibility of someone for his words during wartime - is only glancingly struck. Without any attempt to whitewash Hamsun's written opinions favoring the Nazis who had occupied Norway, the movie's author clearly makes Hamsun more sympathetic as a human being as the movie continues.
I think few would agree about where the line should be drawn on punishment for one's opinions in a free society - when that society is at war. Most think those from the democracies who sympathized with the Nazis and Fascists during the Second World War (e.g., Ezra Pound, Celine, deKock, P.G.Wodehouse, Hamsun) are villainous. But is this because they sided with Nazis or because they sided with their country's enemies? Surely in a free society in peacetime, Ezra Pound's anti-semitic ravings and pro-fascist sympathies would not be punished as treason - any more than those who spoke, but did nothing, in favor of Stalin in America during the 1950s were ever tried for treason.
Clearly in a free society, the crime is not that one has taken a particular position, but that one has spoken in favor of an enemy during wartime. But if this is so, then what is one to say of those Americans who wrote to denounce the United States' war with North Vietnam? Or with Iraq? If we do refuse to label such writings as treason (and most probably do - few call for thousands of trials for treason), why? Could it be simply because neither Iraq nor North Vietnam was likely to so succeed that they would occupy the United States? If Iraq were winning so resoundingly that it now occupied parts of the United States, would writings denouncing the war and in favor of Iraq THEN be treason? Probably most would say so.
But by what logic does treason depend on whether one is winning or losing a war?
Further, if we assume a war between different ideologies, should those who have expressed sympathy for another country's ideology BEFORE any war - at a time when no one could have called it treason - be expected to completely forswear their former opinions the date the war is declared against that country? If so, is this not a strange definition of treason? That someone with PRE-WAR sympathies for a certain position must denounce his previous sympathies when his country goes to war against a country that shares his own beliefs?
Must someone perform an about face from his own repeatedly expressed views -- whenever his country enters a war - or be guilty of treason? Betray yourself or you betray your country? If so, is this not a demerit in any society professing to be free?
And yet no one can doubt that one's own country's success is badly affected (and conversely the enemy is uplifted) to the extent that influential people denounce their own government and praise the enemy - particularly when under enemy occupation.
The issues of treason for opinions are quite complex - but are scarcely touched on in this movie.
And that is fine - this is another movie altogether, psychologically penetrating, fascinating study of old age, of a poor marriage, of the unforeseen future as disappointment, of the yearning to die when old.
The extraordinary Max von Sydow stars in this terrific film about the fine
line between complicity and collaboration in the life of a Noble Prize
winning writer from Norway during the Nazi occupation. But this film is
also so much more than that: it is a film about the complex and
heart-wrenching relations between the writer, his wife and their children.
Like "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," this film asks
where we draw the line in holding artists responsible for their art and
actions in an oft confusing world. But it takes that question a step
further in examining how his art may also have cost him his relationships
with his wife and children.
This is a beautifully filmed, well-acted movie; a true character study of the inner lives of a family, particularly Knut Hamsun and his wife, Marie, evocatively portrayed by Ghita Norby. It is a subtle and slow-paced film in true Scandinavian fashion and von Sydow again shows us why he will be remembered of one of the finest actors of cinema's first 100 years. I highly recommend it, and for those who are interested in other movies dealing with this theme, especially as it relates to artists, so often regarded as naive regarding politics and how they are may be used and manipulated for political gain, I highly recommend "Mother Night," the aforementioned documentary about Riefenstahl, and "Mephisto."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There are two excellent reasons to watch this film. First, to observe
the artist as obliviously self-involved, a figure of genius at what his
talent enables him to accomplish and, at the same time, something of a
monster in believing his talent justifies his unshakably selfish
behavior and naive, misguided beliefs. Second, to see yet another
magnificent portrayal by Max von Sydow. I think a case can be made that
von Sydow has emerged as the greatest film actor of the last fifty
Knut Hamsun is one of the great writers of Western culture. He was born in 1859 in Norway, achieved a towering reputation as a novelist and poet, was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1920 and forever will have an asterisk by his name. The asterisk? Knut Hamsun* passionately supported the rise of Nazism, believed to the end that Hitler was a great man and supported the Nazi occupation of Norway.
Hamsun believed in agrarian values and hated modern industrial culture. He hated the British. He believed Germans and Norwegians were one people and that Norway would sit at the table next to Germany in bringing true values to the lives of all people. The movie starts in 1935 when Hamsun was 76. His marriage to Marie, a former actress 22 years younger, mother of their children, is almost poisonous yet interdependent. "You've made me ugly," she screams at him. "Yes, we've made each other ugly," he says contemptuously and turns away. Everything -- marriage, children, time -- revolve around his needs as a great writer and intellectual. For Hamsun, the rise of Hitler and Nazism promised an age of an orderly flowering of all he believed in. In brief, he swallowed what Hitler was saying, believing what he wanted to believe and unable to question his own certitude. His wife was even more fervently pro-German. Hamsun supported the Quisling government, argued against young Norwegians joining the resistance and denounced the Western allies and the Bolsheviks. Yet at the same time he would intercede in attempts to save those scheduled for execution. He believed in the goals of Nazism, just not all the means. He had never read Mein Kampf and was genuinely shocked after the war when he was forced to watched news reels of the death camps and the slaughter of Jews and all the others. He held to his beliefs even to the end. When Hitler committed suicide, Hamsun insisted on writing an obituary which was published in a Norway about to be taken over by the Allies. "Far be it from me," he wrote, "to talk vocally about Adolph Hitler. Neither his life or deeds invite any sentimentalism. He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind. He preached the gospel that all countries had rights. He was a reformer of the first water. It was his historic destiny to work in a time of extreme brutality which eventually destroyed him. That is how Western Europe should look upon Adolf Hitler. And we, his closest supporters, bow our heads over his death."
After the war Hamsun was arrested for treason, but held in a psychiatric hospital. Although most Norwegians now detested him, the government wasn't about to have an 86-year-old Nobel prize winner stood against a wall and shot. He was forced to undergo a lengthy psychiatric examination. Eventually the government decided he was "permanently mentally disabled," fined a substantial amount of money and released. How mentally disabled was he? He later published a scathing memoir. Feeble and full of years, he died at 92. That asterisk will always be attached to his name. Let artists who believe their genius entitles them to evaluate real life as it effects others beware.
Max von Sydow gives an indelible portrait of this brilliant, selfish, complex, tremulous, naive, self-centered and unshakable old man. He shows us the man from 76 to 92 and seems to shrink before our eyes. With a quivering hand and an old man's cough he becomes Hamsun. The performance is powerful and full of nuance: Hamsun and his wife (played by the wonderful Danish actress Ghita Norby) shredding each other with her reproaches and resentments and his ugly certitude; Hamsun trying to escape from a woman pleading with him to intercede for her imprisoned son; Hamsun trying to make his case with Hitler and becoming carried away with his own uncontrollable flow of words and more words; Hamsun dealing with a crafty psychiatrist; Hamsun testifying for himself after the war before a panel of judges...not justifying himself, not denying what he wrote, but still insisting that nothing he did was wrong...that he didn't kill anyone, that no one told him what he was writing was wrong, that Hitler was shown to be bad but, after all, that is in the past and cannot be undone.
I can think of few actors, perhaps none, who have been vital to so many powerful films over so long a period. Just consider a few: The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), The Immigrants (1971), The New Land (1972), Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and Hamsun (1996). Even in the many movies in Europe and America he has made primarily, I assume, for the money, he has never failed to give less than a believable and vivid performance. Among my favorites: The incredibly over-the-top and amusing Ming the Magnificent in Flash Gordon (1980), the wise and thoughtful paid assassin, Joubert, in Three Days of the Condor (1975) and the sincere and doomed Dr. Paul Novotny in Dreamscape (1984). von Sydow's performance as Knut Hamsun is one of his richest and most subtle roles to date.
One of the elements that make this film one of the most fascinating
ever made is the use of language... while Knut and Marie Hamsun were
Norwegians, Max von Sydow and Ghita Nørby speak Swedish and Danish
respectively throughout the movie. To those not well-versed in
Scandinavian languages, there is a very big difference. Most Swedes
cannot understand more than 20% of spoken Danish and perhaps 60% of
Norwegian. To make the comparison easier to grasp, imagine a Spanish
movie where the main characters speak Portuguese and Italian. I don't
know why this linguistic device was used, but the effect is remarkable.
At first I figured it was a way to distance Norwegians from the main
characters whom were regarded as traitors, but that theory doesn't hold
since the character who plays Quisling (the man who "sold" Nazism to
many Norwegians) speaks Norwegian throughout the film.
Trivia: throughout Scandinavia the name "Quisling" is not just synonymous with "back-stabber"... it has actually become a commonplace word and is found in most dictionaries. It is comparative to the phrase "his name is Mudd" in the U.S.
To put it nice and simple, this movie is wonderful.
Von Sydow delivers a performance worth of every Award on Earth, Ghita Norby as Hamsun's wife is also splendid, the movie is written and directed with a nice but firm hand, even on the most unpleasant portions of Hamsun's life.
Knut Hamsun had a controversial and tormented relationship with everything and everyone in his life, as self-centered as he was. The stigma of the true genius indeed.
His sympathy for Nazism caused him a lot of troubles when the war ended and Norway was free from the Nazi occupation and from the collaborationist government.
Hamsun's previous opinions, albeit somewhat changed as the Germans were showing their true colours, still were enough to get him accused of treason. After the trial and an humiliating detention in a mental hospital, Hamsun got labeled as "insane", despite still managed to write a sharp and honest apologetic memoir, at 90 years of age.
The movie capture all of that, with a level of immersion that is truly engaging and astonishing. And side-by-side with Hamsun's public success and subsequent downfall, we follow the downfall of his personal life, to a point where public and private become one.
As said, acting is nothing short of brilliant
The only, marginal, problem is the language... Everyone speaks Norwegian, while Hamsun and his wife speak Swedish and Danish. It's a tad weird hearing arguably the best Norwegian author in history and his wife talking to each other in a different language (neither of them being their actual one).
But in all honesty, if the lack of language consistency was the price to pay to get such a good performance, I would gladly have Hamsun and Marie speaking French...
FINAL VERDICT: Hamsun is graceful and brutal at the same time. A true gem.
First of all I'd like to say that this movie was more exciting than I would have thought it to be in the start. Which is always a plus. In the beginning it was odd to me that Knut Hamsun were played by a Swedish actor and his wife Marie Hamsun were played by a Danish actor. But to tell you the truth, after a while you hardly noticed the language difference. And they could probably not have found a better Knut and Marie for this movie. The movie starts right before the second world war, and the 'action' in it is mostly about the Hamsun family's life during the second world war and afterwards. It was kind sad that the movie started so late in Hamsun's life, seeing that he was around the age of 80 (?) in the war years. Because Knut Hamsun had an utterly exciting life before that, and the most of his writings were written before that. It was confusing to me who his kids were at times, seeing that they weren't introduced to us that well. This is a great movie about an Norwegian author who rather took side with the Germans during the second world war, since he despited the English. Or was he on the German side? this movie takes up this dilemma, which no one yet can be a 100% sure about. But just remember. This movie only takes the Last years of Knut Hamsun's life. You should know a few things about his life before this, if you want to understand the movie properly.
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