Saturday, June 1, 2013

Hunger (1966)

Director: Henning Carlsen                              Writer: Henning Carlsen
Film Score: Krzysztof Komeda                      Cinematography: Henning Kristiansen
Starring: Per Oscarsson, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitte Federspiel and Knud Rex

This is a very strange little film from Norway. Based on the novel by the famed Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, Hunger is not just about food. Per Oscarsson plays the lead character, Pontus, who appears to be a writer, but never seems to write very much. He’s a very odd character, prone to disputing with police the time of day, occasionally looking for a regular job, following women, but always wandering about the capitol, Kristiania (what would later be called Oslo) with his paper and pencil jotting down strange things. But the title refers to much more than the obvious, for Oscarsson not only hungers for food, but for a job, for money, for love, for . . . dignity.

Though he is staying in a cheap room in the beginning, he soon becomes homeless. But ultimately food is the primary focus of his all his attention. He frequently stops in front of store windows, staring at the food. He goes to the meat market, the bakery, restaurants, but the only thing he ever chews on is paper. What’s interesting is that he refuses to get in line at the soup kitchen and get a hot meal. Instead he lies to everyone he knows, saying that things are much better than they are, unwilling to admit to anyone that he needs help. At one point he chases down a dog for the bone in its mouth but the animal is too fast. It takes a while for the significance of the title to really penetrate the viewer’s consciousness, probably not until he begins hallucinating from the lack of food. It’s not until then that the character begins to makes sense.

Though set in 1890, this is very much a sixties film: crisp, clear, almost video quality black and white, with all of the sound effects and dialogue dubbed in afterward. The actors, while costumed appropriately also feel as if they are from a different generation, in this case two. Director Henning Carlsen, who also adapted the novel into a screenplay, displays some distinctive Scandinavian traits, one of which is liberal use of quick pans to show what the characters are looking at instead of cuts. It’s a very subjective use of the camera, one shared by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The soundtrack, by Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda, is angular and sparse, in instrumentation as well as usage, giving the film a very haunted feel. Komeda would go on the next year to compose the score of Rosemary’s Baby for Roman Polanski, but died at age 37 in 1969.

The story is based on the novel Sult by the famed Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, and the film sort of suffers for it. Hamsun’s novel is very much in the tradition of Russian writers like Dostoevsky or Chekov in that the bulk of the narrative is internal dialogue by the protagonist. As such, a visual medium like film can’t begin to convey the richness of character simply by showing the events that happen to him. In addition, there’s a strong sense that the essence of the character was left out in the selection of scenes that were chosen for inclusion, and that much more could have been revealed by things that were left out. It’s a difficult thing to assess. Carlsen does a nice job and it is a film worth watching, such as it is. Ultimately, however, Hunger is probably best viewed after reading the novel, allowing the viewer to fill in for themselves the prodigious gaps in the story that would probably leave those not having read the story wanting.

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