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December 30, 2011


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Henning Carlsen - 1966
New Yorker Video Region 1 DVD

Seen forty-five years after its initial release, Hunger looks and sounds like the very definition of a mid-Sixties art film. Aside from the basic story about urban alienation, there is the stark black and white cinematography, the score by Krzysztof Komeda, sometimes discordant and atonal, and a scene of Per Oscarsson and Gunnel Lindblom alternately trying to seduce each other when not hold each other at arms length, with the kind of intimacy that English language films at the time could barely hint at. One could call Hunger an art film with a capital A. The film was Denmark's entry for the Oscar for Foreign Language Film in 1966, but didn't make the final cut. Consider also that another very serious Scandinavian film didn't make the cut either, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and Henning Carlsen's film would be in good company.

Hunger is the film that won Per Oscarsson the Best Actor award at Cannes. Oscarsson lost weight prior to shoot, walking a distance of about 300 miles from Copenhagen to Oslo, the location of the film. And while Oscarrson never lacked for work, appearing in character roles in English language films, and starring in films in his native Sweden, he would never appear in a film that would seem to make the most of his abilities as in this film.

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Not having read Knut Hamsun's novel, I can't discuss in what ways the film honors or strays from the literary source. In opening scene, Oscarsson's character, the writer Pontus, is scribbling some notes, tears off part of a sheet of paper, and stuffs it in his mouth, almost choking himself before spitting it out. It's a scene that was improvised, but it provides a powerful visual sense of the title. There is the other kind of hunger as Pontus stares at hanging sausages, looks longingly at plates of some kind of stew (the 1890s version of a fast food meal), as well as the hunger for respect and recognition. Pontus also is in self-denial about his circumstances, literally giving away what little money he has, making up fantastic stories about his life, even when reduced to trying to sell his suit buttons for some pocket change. There are several shots of Pontus' extremely scuffed shoes to indicate his extreme poverty.

There is a sense of Oscarsson begin totally immersed in his character with the unkempt hair, the unshaven face, and especially the stained teeth. That Pontus and the woman he is obsessed with, that he calls Ylajali, briefly get together is in a conventional sense astonishing considering Pontus' lack of grooming or basic hygiene. Ylajali is an ambiguous character as well, by all appearances the resident of one of the better neighborhoods. Yet in one scene, looking at the menu of a restaurant, she and her sister agree that they can afford to treat themselves to coffee. When Ylajali tells Pontus to leave her apartment because the maid is scheduled to return, there is the possibility that it is Ylajali is the in fact the maid of the house. While never obviously stated, the film suggests that whatever attraction Ylajali may have for Pontus may be based on her own unstated appetites.

The DVD includes Henning Carlsen discussing his interest in making a film from Knut Hamsun's novel, and the various twists and turns in the production, noted also for being the first pan-Scandinavian coproduction. A different actor, Per Myrberg, was the intended star, bowing out to perform in a play directed by Ingmar Bergman. Carlsen talks about the conflicting acting styles of Oscarsson and Lindblom, actors who spoke different languages, and trying to make the film appear to take place in overcast weather during the sunniest Fall season in memory. There is also some insight to be gleaned in a discussion by writer Paul Auster and Hamsun's grand-daughter Regine Hamsun.

The main attraction is Per Oscarsson's performance. This may open the eyes of a younger audience who might only know Oscarsson as Lisbeth Salander's guardian angel, Holger Palmgren, in The Girl who Played with Fire. There is much to like about Hunger, but Oscarsson's performance is enough reason to rescue this film from its status as an almost forgotten classic.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 30, 2011 08:06 AM