Wednesday, February 4, 1998

Hamsun

Posted By on Wed, Feb 4, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Director Jan Troell's Hamsun tells the story of the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun, focusing on his declining years when he became an avid supporter of the Nazi regime.

Hamsun was already in his early 70s when Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933 and he continued to support the dictator throughout the war, even writing a respectful obituary for him in 1945. Once viewed as the living embodiment of Norway, he became a monumental embarrassment to his countrymen and, after a postwar period of psychiatric confinement, was tried and fined for his traitorous activities. In 1949, at the age of 90, he wrote a mea culpa-cum-cop-out called On Overgrown Paths and then died three years later.

Hamsun has a lot of intrinsic interest for the Scandinavian audience, dealing as it does with one of the region's greatest and most troubling artists. But in America the writer's renown has dimmed over the years, with only his 1890 autobiographical Hunger remaining a perennial in used book stores. The prospect of spending two-and-a-half hours mulling over the political indiscretions and miserable private life of such an obscure figure may seem daunting. It doesn't help that the film has a rather lumpy narrative, moving between the author's prickly relationship with Nazism, fueled more by a hatred of British imperialism and a boundless Norwegian nationalism than by any love for Germany, and his tumultuous dealings with his long-suffering wife and estranged children.

It helps a great deal, however, that Hamsun is played by Max Von Sydow, who gives a brilliant performance, shading the character in such a way that mere villainy is out of the question; this Hamsun is confused, arrogant, passionate and naive by turns, a not quite sympathetic but certainly comprehensible human being. This portrait is highlighted by a wonderful scene in which he finally gets to meet Hitler and, overcome by his feelings of admiration and doubt, lapses into such a stuttering harangue that the mad dictator finally flees the room in disgust.

For the most part, though, this is the dour saga of a cranky old man who is mean to his family. For Von Sydow fans, it's a must-see; for readers of Hamsun, it will have some vestigial interest; for others the tedium will probably win out.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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