Director: Henning Carlsen
One doesn't have to be mad just because one is sensitive. There are people who live on trifles and die because of a harsh word.
The main character and narrator of the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun's 1890 novel Hunger is one of the great outsider figures of literature, ranking in importance right alongside Dostoevsky's Underground Man, Kafka's Gregor Samsa, and Camus's Meursault. In the 1966 film version of the novel, this character, who is unnamed in the novel, is called Pontus and is played by the Swedish actor Per Oscarsson. In adapting Hamsun's book for film, Henning Carlsen, who directed the movie, and his cowriter, the Danish novelist and playwright Peter Seeberg, faced a number of daunting challenges. Yet in the end they succeeded in the nearly impossible task of creating a film that preserves the themes and atmosphere of the book and is at the same time fully cinematic.
One of the biggest challenges they faced was that the novel has no conventional narrative arc of rising and falling action. Its story is less a plot than an accumulation of incidents that impart a mood, a state of mind, an idiosyncratic sense of reality. The film follows a few days in the life of Pontus in Christiania, modern-day Oslo. Pontus is an aspiring writer so poor that he cannot pay his rent, can barely afford paper and a pencil to write with, and hasn't eaten for at least several days. His hunger has begun to affect his ability to write and to make rational decisions. As he becomes more desperate, his behavior becomes more erratic. As his behavior grows more bizarre, he is ridiculed, taken advantage of, and pushed more and more to the fringes of society.
The film is framed as a series of incidents that give us a picture of the the world Pontus lives in, the inner workings of his mind, and the way his personality responds to the environment around him. For several days Pontus wanders around the city attempting to organize his life but never seeming to make any progress. Like a person caught in a whirlpool, he goes around and around, returning time and again to the same point. He tries to raise money by looking for work, always unsuccessfully, by repeatedly trying to pawn his few remaining possessions—even his eyeglasses and the clothing he is wearing—to a pawnbroker who tells him he is not interested, and by repeated visits to a newspaper to sell an article he has written. Evicted from his room for not paying the rent, he spends a night on a park bench, rents another room with the promise to pay for it the next day, then after he can't pay the rent spends a hellish night in his landlady's apartment silently observing her family mistreat and psychologically torment one another. He tries to find food but cannot bring himself to eat at a beggars' kitchen and is finally reduced to getting a soup bone at an abattoir, saying it is for his dog, then gnaws ravenously at the raw bone before vomiting. From time to time, he returns to the same bridge, where he leans over the rail staring silently at the water below. It's a recurrent image that strikingly illustrates the futility and repetition of his life.
As he wanders about, Pontus accosts strangers, haranguing a policeman then meekly skulking off before he can be arrested as a drunkard or madman. He befriends a man sitting on a park bench before changing tack without warning and hostilely berating him. He stalks a pair of young women strolling in the park, cavorting around them and verbally teasing them, then following them to a restaurant. He becomes fixated on one of these women, whom he calls Ylajali (Gunnel Lindblom, who appeared in several of Ingmar Bergman's films), as a sort of fantasy projection of an idealized love object. When he later meets her in the street and she invites him to her house, he has a romantic encounter that appears to be leading to sex but ends abruptly when she gets cold feet. This encounter seems to epitomize everything that happens to him: Any opportunity that appears to be leading somewhere becomes a dead end. Any attempt to connect with the world around him leads to rejection.
Director Carlsen and cinematographer Henning Kristiansen (he also photographed Babette's Feast) worked hard to get the right look for the film. In interviews, Carlsen has said he wanted to avoid the glamor of period pictures, one reason he chose to film in b&w rather than color. In one scene Pontus is filmed walking down a street, and the scene has the typical look of one photographed with a telephoto lens. Carlsen says he tried this because he wanted to convey the idea of Pontus moving but not really getting anywhere. After seeing the test shots for this scene, he and the cinematographer realized that the telephoto lens gave the city the look they were after and decided to shoot the entire movie with extra-long lenses. This gives the film a harsh, dense look that emphasizes the glassy opacity of the water, the oppressive grayness of the sky, and especially the hardness of the cobbled streets, iron railings, and brickwork and woodwork of the buildings. The effect is to make the world around Pontus look cold and inhospitable, a grim, hopeless place that seems determined to isolate him and slowly wear him down.
But the one thing above all else that holds Hunger together is the remarkable lead performance by Per Oscarsson, who won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and from the National Society of Film Critics. The novel the film is based on is a first-person narrative less concerned with external events than with the personality of the narrator. This almost wholly internalized style of writing is surely the most difficult to adapt for the screen. Because movies must show everything from the outside, there are only a limited number of ways the writer and director can suggest that the world around a character is being shown from a subjective point of view. Two of the most common ways of dealing with this limitation are to show the character's delusions as hallucinations and to use voice-over narration. In Hunger Carlsen does neither. Aside from the selection of incidents in the screenplay, he is pretty much dependent on Oscarsson to convey the abnormal personality of Pontus, and Oscarsson delivers the goods in one of the great screen performances.
For one thing, he looks exactly right for the part. His gaunt frame and baggy clothing, the haunted look in his eyes, his alternately baffled and slightly maniacal facial expressions—everything about him expresses the inner intensity of Pontus and his mental dissociation from reality. He always appears edgy, disoriented, and preoccupied, and just a bit dazed from trying to make sense of what he is experiencing. Oscarsson's body language is also exactly right. He looks both rigid and slightly weak from hunger, as though he is exerting immense physical control just to keep going. Aside from those contemplative interludes on the bridge, he is nearly always on the move, and his jerky movements can be startlingly unpredictable. He often sets off in one direction then suddenly stops, turns, and impulsively veers off in another direction. As well as Pontus's steady but unfocused determination, Oscarsson also expertly conveys his perverse sense of humor. I sometimes found myself almost unwillingly laughing out loud at his outrageous verbal tirades.
Pontus is a victim of life defiantly trying to maintain his dignity in a cold and confusing world. Conspicuously lacking in social skills, he seems unable to gauge the feelings of others accurately or to respond to them appropriately. His mood can change from aggressive to obsequious in an instant. As hard as he tries to be accepted and appreciated, he does self-defeating things that quickly snowball into situations which actually prevent this. When his article is accepted by the editor of the newspaper with the proviso that he revise it within twenty-four hours, he is too proud to accept the sympathetic editor's offer of an advance on his payment. Because of this, he can't pay the rent he has promised the landlady of his new lodgings and again finds himself evicted. So he tries to revise his article on the street, using a streetlamp for light. Then along comes Ylajali and, distracted by her, he is unable to finish his article, the one thing that has kept him going for the entire film. In the end, he simply abandons his life in Christiania and signs on as a crewman on a ship leaving for a Baltic port.
Pontus's hunger can be viewed in a number of ways. His physical hunger befuddles his judgment and is at least in part responsible for his peculiar behavior and impetuous decisions. His hunger for love drives his obsession with the girl he calls Ylajali. His hunger for his art motivates him to sacrifice everything else, even food and shelter, to keep writing and to get his work into print. On the most fundamental level, though—and I think this is what gives both the novel and the movie their profound resonance—is Pontus's spiritual hunger to find meaning in life and his dread that no matter how hard he looks, there is no sustenance to be found, only the perpetual motion of an endless, fruitless search.