(director/writer: Henning Carlsen; screenwriter: from a novel by Knut Hamsun; cinematographer: Henning Kristiansen; editor: Henning Carlsen; music: Krzysztof Komeda; cast: Per Oscarsson (Pontus), Gunnel Lindblom (Ylajali), Birgitte Federspiel (Ylajali’s sister), Knud Rex (Landlord), Hans W. Petersen (Grocer), Henki Kolstad (Editor); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Göran Lindgren; New Yorker Films; 1966-Denmark/Norway/Sweden-in Danish-Norwegian-Swedish with English subtitles)

“The haunting characterization by Oscarsson is what gives this tale of misery its muscle and rawness.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hunger is a sparkling black-and-white film written and directed by Denmark’s Henning Carlsen (“The Wolf at the Door”) that’s based on the acclaimed first novel by Knut Hamsun. It’s an uncompromising story about a starving, foolish and proud young writer named Pontus (Per Oscarsson) living in Christiana, Norway, in 1890. The depressing grey atmospheric locations reflect the squalor and coldness of the people the struggling artist had to face. Oscarsson, for his marvelously effective heartbreaking and complex performance, won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Pontus lives to write, and would do nothing to jeopardize what burns inside him. After obsessively writing his supposed masterpiece with little regard to his well-being and giving a manuscript to a publisher, he’s promised money for an article he’s invited to submit as the editor says he has some talent. Penniless and unable to secure employment, he’s forced to wander the streets when his landlady gives him the boot for not paying the rent. While roaming the city he will berate strangers over imagined insults; accompany an unemployed artist friend to a restaurant but will not eat or let on that he’s broke and hungry; at a pawnbroker’s he will sell his waistcoat for some spare change, but his quilt will not be accepted. He will retreat further into daydreams, hallucinations and will show signs that he’s losing his mind. Strange comments will start coming from him, as he asks for no apparent reason a number of policemen the time and then either compliments or criticizes them upon their responses. Pontus will find another squalid residence on the promise of being paid for the article, but he can no longer concentrate on that task as his hunger has become so great. He will also get the boot from here when he can’t pay the rent. While in the park he will attract the attention of a genteel lady (Gunnel Lindblom) walking with her uppity sister; he will later meet her alone on the street and get invited to her place, as she finds his ways romantically mysterious and intriguing. But this stab at love ends in pitiable failure, as she realizes he’s not the romantic bohemian or charming drunk she first thought but a poor soul living on the edge. Rejecting the romance, she will try sending him money later. But he’s too proud to accept charity and gives it to others he thinks are more needy. This pride leaves him abandoned without food, shelter, warm clothes, or friendship, so in the end he opts to leave the city to be a deckhand on a ship. The point being that as down as he’s become, Pontus still believes in his art, his worth and the future of mankind.

“Hunger” cuts to the bone, offering a thin but moving drama that depicts madness and possible genius as mixed in the same formula. The haunting characterization by Oscarsson is what gives this tale of misery its muscle and rawness.