Isaac Bashevis Singer called Norway’s Nobel Prize-winning Knut Hamsun, the author of Hunger (1890) and Growth of the Soil (1917), the “father of modern literature.” Hamsun, beautifully played by Max von Sydow (best actor, Bodil and Guldbagge Awards, and at Valladolid), is the subject of Hamsun, a long, interesting, handsome production directed by Sweden’s Jan Troëll. This isn’t the sort of thing I warmly respond to.
Troëll has made the focus of his film the most controversial aspect of Hamsun’s public life. A staunch opponent of British imperialism, Hamsun supported Adolf Hitler, whose occupation of Norway he worked to ameliorate. Troëll’s film very nearly begins with one of Hamsun’s daughters informing her father, who hardly responds while busy writing at his desk, that Germany has surrendered. Troëll seems to imply that arrogant, jaded Hamsun is somehow responsible for Hitler’s reign of terror.
Indeed, this film sheds no light on Hamsun’s “alliance” with the German leader and his Nazi program. We all know that Hitler flattered authors and other creative individuals by almost flirtatiously seeking their support, apparently all the while holding them in contempt. Hamsun’s naïvité when in his 80s he met with Hitler hardly explains the expansiveness of literary interest in Hitler, the despot’s attraction for a wide range of European intellectuals and aesthetes; moreover, it is ridiculous to imply, as this film does, that Hamsun’s wife Marie’s incipient feminism influenced her spouse in the direction of Hitler’s appeal to gender equality. For me, it is maddening to sit through such nonsense. Ghita Nørby, incidentally, gives a spirited performance as Marie Hamsun, whose taxing marriage to the great one is another focus here. One might quip that Hamsun lived too long to maintain his dignity.
Overall, Troëll’s film is more pictorial than penetrating—a disappointment.
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