The man vs. the myth
Espen Sandberg takes a new look at Roald Amundsen in an epic Norwegian film
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
One of Norway’s most anticipated and perhaps controversial films of 2019, Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition, finally reached North American audiences this spring, first in virtual cinemas in March and then on video on demand channels this month. The epic film was directed by Espen Sandberg, one of Norway’s leading names in cinema with fims inculding Max Manus and Kon-Tiki on his reusme, and recently, The Norwegian American talked to him in an exclusive interview.
To make a film about Roald Amundsen is no small undertaking. As a historical figure, he looms larger than life, as the first man to reach the South Pole, the first to make a ship voyage through the Northwest Passage, and one of the first to cross the North Pole by air. This all happened at a time when Norway was defining itself as a new nation, with its newly won independence from Sweden in 1905. Amundsen is revered in Norway almost as a founding father; his reputation has taken on an nearly mythical quality. He has come to represent the personification of “the Norwegian on skis who can do anything.”
But as we learn in the film, Amundsen was a complex individual, driven by a blind ambition that saw few boundaries. He emerges as a difficult hero, whose character is marked by dichotomies: Was he a realist or a dreamer? Was he self-sacrificing or self-serving? Did his accomplishments outweigh the wreckage he left in his path? At the end of his life, he painted a picture of himself as angry, frustrated, even bitter, in deep contrast to the heroic figure of Norwegian history.
It is these questions that Sandberg wanted to explore in his film, as he sought to understand who Roald Amundsen, the man, was—and perhaps this is what got the acclaimed director into hot water with many Norwegian critics. The man vs. the myth is not always easy to accept, and if anyone is looking for a film that is a pure glorification of Amundsen, this is not the movie to watch. Neither does it function as docudrama of the explorer’s expeditions; while they are captured in magnificent scenes, they are not the focal episodes of the film. Rather, Sandberg’s film offers perhaps lesser-known insights into Amundsen’s psyche and existential dilemma.
To approach the subject with any depth required an extensive research effort on Sandberg’s part, a daunting task, as there is a voluminous corpus of books, letters, photos, film footage, and other material about Amundsen’s life and work. The director and his team spent hours on end digging into the archives and worked with Amundsen’s scholars at Uranienborg, his home-turned-museum outside of Oslo. Experts at the Fram Museum in Oslo provided invaluable input. Sandberg also interacted with living members of the Amundsen family, and finally, Amundsen’s autobiography was a critical source. A script began to take shape.
The more Sandberg dug into his material, two key relationships in Amundsen’s life emerged, that with his brother Leon and Bess Magids, his confidant and fiancée in the later years of his life. The two offer different perspectives on Amundsen’s character, one of a frustrated, resentful sibling, and one of an adoring friend and lover—a mirroring of the dichotomy present in Amundsen’s character.
To tell his story, Sandberg created a dialogue between the brother and lover, “a fictional lie” in the strictest sense but based on viable sources to make it credible. We know that the two spent many hours together at Uranienborg and would have engaged in these conversations, and it is Sandberg’s art that makes their crafted conversations believable.
We talked a bit about the women in Amundsen’s life—there were many—and how a lasting happiness escaped him. As with many other aspects of his story, his relationships with women could be characterized as complicated in the very least. Amundsen’s predilection for married women was well known; he perhaps saw them as a challenge, or perhaps his choices were part of his inability or unwillingness to make a full commitment to anyone but himself, with his inability to balance his personal life with his professional life.
Amundsen was away on his polar expeditions for years on end, making a relationship with any woman nearly impossible. In the film, the two great loves of Amundsen’s life are portrayed, but in the end, both Kristine Elisabeth “Kiss” Bennett and Bess Magids are lost to him. Many believe that Norwegian-born Kiss may have been his greatest hope for happiness, but utimately, she could not wait for him. She apperas as beautiful, refined, and ethereal, in contrast to the unconventional, earthy Bess—another manifestation of the split in Amundsen’s own personality.
Canadian-born Elizabeth “Bess’’ Magids was an adventure-loving Alaskan, who Amundsen met on one of Arctic expeditions. She was a modern woman ahead of her time, and, in many ways, Amundsen’s match. She dared to leave her husband to marry the much-older man at a time when divorce carried enormous social stigma, staying true to herself. Yet Amundsen sacrifices Bess, too, when he agrees to fly out on a mission to rescue the Italian explorer Umberto Nobile and his crew, whose airship had gone down on the ice north of Svalbard. In the film, she asks Leon why he would do it, and as viewers we are left to answer the question ourselves. Amundsen’s ambition drove him to the very end. After publishing his autobiography that put him at odds with both those he saw as his rivals and many of his supporters, including Fridtjof Nansen and even the king of Norway, Sandberg saw that Amundsen felt the need to rehabilitate himself—to a tragic end.
In the film, his brother Leon wants to set the record straight. It is a love-hate relationship that unfolds between the two. Leon adores and supports his younger brother, and he even bravely rescues him, literally, while on a winter adventure on the Hardanger Plateau. Leon stays in Norway to support his family, his loyalty and practicality contrasted with his brother’s egotism and extravagance, often leading to financial ruin. Leon resents that his brother could never fully acknowledge his sacrifices, and, ultimately, Leon is snubbed by Amundsen in his notorious autobiography.
King Haakon’s motto “Alt for Norge”—everything for Norway—hangs on a tapestry on a wall in Amundsen’s home, Uranienborg—it is also Amundsen’s motto—but in Leon’s eyes, he has corrupted it to “Alt for Amundsen.” Is the hero a personification of the Norwegian character, a type of Peer Gynt figure, a dreamer and adventurer who only puts himself ahead of all else, his life wasted in the end? In Ibsen’s drama, the onion is peeled down to nothing at the core, and even though the film spans several decades and we witness some changes in Amundsen, we see little change in his intrinsic personality. Yet, to Sandberg’s credit, there are moments when we sympathize and cheer for him, especially in contrast to the arrogant British (we really do want him and the Norwegians to beat Robert Scott to the South Pole), we are fascinated by him and admire him, but we struggle to understand him, and it is easy to gain sympathy for his brother, as he tells his story.
The role of Amundsen required a seasoned and skilled actor, and here, Sandberg was fortunate to work with Pål Sverre Hagen, who collaborated with him in both the Max Manus and Kon-Tiki films. Like Amundsen in real life, Hagen is a tall man, at 6’5”, towering above the rest of the cast, symbolic of both the physical and mythical stature of Amundsen. The resemblance between the two is almost uncanny, in part due to the makeup artistry at play. Each morning, Hagen underwent about five hours of makeup each day before a 12-hour shooting schedule, and then there were two more hours to remove everything.
In Sandberg’s own words, “It was an extremely demanding role to play,” not just because of the practical logistics of the production, but because of the long timespan in Amundsen’s life covered in the film. Hagen is able to bring a human element to the character. We see him interact with children, the men on his expedition, and the women in his life, and even with all his faults, we want him to be happy, even if he cannot achieve this for himself.
Sandberg and team also deserve kudos for their casting of Leon and Bess, with actors Christian Rubek and Katherine Waterston in those roles. Rubek is a beloved Norwegian stage actor, also known to American audiences for his role in Max Manus. While Leon is a less complicated character than his brother in the film, he is just as conflicted somehow, which we realize through Rubek’s portrayal. We feel his love and hate for his brother, but we never sense that he has become indifferent to him.
Waterston functions as his sympathetic sounding board and counterbalance in conversation. Like Hagen, she stands at a towering 5’11”, symbolic of her power and ability to stand next to Amundsen as an equal. Sandberg and I laughed when he shared that she was finally glad to get a leading man who was actually quite a bit taller than she is.
And then there is the cinematography. Amundsen was designed to be a magnificent and visually striking movie, and on this level, it is an amazing success. The outdoor scenes shot in Norway and Iceland are breathtakingly beautiful, epic in dimension.
Sandberg shared how shooting in Arctic locations was extremely demanding, with changing weather conditions, even dangerous at times, but the end results were well worth the hardships. The breadth of the Arctic scenes creates a sense of the scope of the expeditions—you can almost feel the chill of the ice and sense the vast openness leading into the unknown. The brightness of the winter white is contrasts with the darkness of the interiors, a contrast of the open wild and enclosed civilization. In the expedition scenes, this creates a sense of the thrill of adventure. One only wishes to be able to experience it on the wide screen of a movie theater.
Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition is a big film, which from the outset was its greatest challenge. How do you portray the life of a bigger-than-life hero in a matter of a few hours—and an extremely complex one at that? This may account for some of the criticism that the production has garnered in Norway, but I believe much of this has to do with perspective. On the one hand, the film offers a new look at Amundsen outside of the standard hero worship associated with his persona, a problematical undertaking. On the other hand, you can approach this film with little to no knowledge about Amundsen and learn a great deal about who he was and what he did—and you will probably want to learn more. It is a film well worth seeing for all audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition was released by the Swedish company SF Studios in Norway and has been distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films in North America.
This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.