Published October 1, 1997
Faust—as he appears in Playing God and Devil’s Advocate—appears to be all the rage in Hollywood at the moment. Coincidently, a Norwegian version of the Faust tale in Jan Troell’s Hamsun is knocking around out there somewhere at the moment. You may even get to see it if you live in a city where they have a real hard-core art-movie house. But you should be warned that if you do see it you may come out, as I did, ashamed to be an American. The fact that little Norway, with a population about the size of Alabama’s, should be producing real, grown-up movies like this one while we carry on producing nothing but expensive trash like the above is very hard for any true patriot to live with.
The film tells the story of the Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow) who, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, became a Nazi sympathizer during the war and was tried after it for treason. Hitler (Ernst Jacobi), the Mephistopholes to his Faust, does not, like Al Pacino, come proffering ten room co-ops in New York and media stardom but rather that subtlest of all temptations, flattery of his victim’s self-importance. Nor can this film employ cheap Hollywood tricks to win our sympathy for its Faust. Hamsun is from beginning to end of it a deeply unsympathetic character: arrogant, insensitive, self-centered, pig-headed, cruel to those who love him and unforgivably naïve. Yet without even the counterbalance of Hamsun’s skill as a writer—so difficult to put across in a movie—Troell and von Sydow between them manage to make us feel more for him than we ever could for Keanu Reeves.
A lot of the credit, too, should go to Ghita Nørby, who plays Hamsun’s long-suffering wife, Marie. What she brings to the picture is not the pathos of her suffering at her husband’s hands as her sense of loyalty in spite of it. She is actually much more the Nazi than he is, since “The Cause” offers her a reason for existence apart from him. It is a declaration of independence which he cannot allow himself to recognize as such. Yet in the post-war world where the theme of loyalty and betrayal is on everyone’s lips—where their friend the Nazi puppet Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal) is shot and Marie is sent to prison and Hamsun himself is said to be merely senile—it is only through trickery and deceit that Marie is made to betray her husband. “You made me be a traitor, you bastard,” she says to the psychiatrist who has broken a promise of confidentiality. But she is thinking not of her support for the Third Reich but of having talked about her husband behind his back.
In a way, the centerpiece of the film is the fascinatingly comic meeting between Hamsun and Hitler at the latter’s Austrian mountain retreat. Hitler, the politician, only wants to talk about poetry while Hamsun, the poet, only wants to talk about politics. It is obvious that each is out of his depth in the other’s area of expertise, but Hamsun, with his usual arrogance talks on at the fearsome dictator about independent Norway (which no one but he believes will result from the Nazi occupation) until Hitler tells him that he understands nothing and stalks from the room, telling an aide never to bring anyone like that to meet him again.
But, unlike Hitler’s, Hamsun’s arrogance is taken to school. In the movie’s most searing scene, we watch the psychiatrist’s interview with Marie, in which she has finally been induced to tell the story, weeping, of Hamsun’s appalling neglect of their children, intercut with Hamsun himself watching newsreel footage of the German concentration camps—something which is obviously a revelation to him (he himself thinks Nazi anti-Semitism a mistake, but because he has never even bothered to read Mein Kampf he does not know how central a part of the Nazi program it is). We see the tears running down his cheeks as he mutters: “The children! The children!” The terribly moving final scenes leave us with images of personal and domestic life’s outlasting and triumphing over the political, which is also the diabolical. But what a lot of dead and damaged people have been, as they always are, left along the wayside!