This is director Jan Troell’s biography of the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning author, Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow). Hamsun was a brilliant author, but very controversial due to his connections with the Nazi regime in Norway during World War II. The movie is as much about Norway’s experiences with Hitler as it is about Hamsun’s personal life.
Knut Hamsun, a staunchly anti-British nationalist, was his country’s most beloved writer, best known for his modernist books Hunger (1890) and Growth of the Soul (1917), which gave Norway’s literature worldwide stature. But with the shadow of Nazism quickly darkening Europe, Knut Hamsun and his wife Marie embrace Hitler – who sees Hamsun’s support as the surest way to win over the Norwegian people.
Opening with a scene that establishes Hamsun’s tormented relationship with his wife, Marie (Ghita Nørby), the film examines the couple’s gradual conversion to Nazism, as Germany occupies Norway during World War II. Persuaded by a Nazi ambassador sent to Oslo, Vidkun Quisling (Sverre Anker), both Marie and Knut become spokespeople for the Nazi Party, justifying their politics by the German promise of a strong, independent post-war Norway. As the Hamsuns discover the hushed horrors around them, their own personal relationship falls away, forcing them to reflect on their lives, their dysfunctional children, and their mistakes.
Known as a traitor in Norway, Knut Hamsun, in this film, is portrayed as a true Norwegian patriot, proving, through Hamsun’s own words, that his misdirected desire to aid Hitler had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. A sad beauty permeates Hamsun. Just as the author sentences himself, the viewer musters up enough sympathy for Hamsun to learn that, indeed, the personal is political.
The movie is an epic story of love and treason, and Max Von Sydow gives a career-crowning performance as Knut Hamsun. Max Von Sydow brilliantly captures the loneliness and confusion of the last seventeen years of Hamsun’s life, as he faces the consequences of his outspoken support of Nazi politics in Norway.
After the war, instead of being jailed for treason, Hamsun is ordered to undergo months of intense psychiatric evaluations and a court trial that almost ends both his relationship with Marie and his life.
The subject matter of this movie is controversial but the film gracefully confronts the issue of the Hamsuns’ Nazism and gives humanity to it. Max Von Sydow’s performance is wonderful. While the story concerns Nazism and literature, its main focus is the estrangement and reconciliation of two very powerful personalities. And as a somewhat tragic love story, it is impeccable. Highly recommended!