The audience might not know what to make of the central character, Pontus, in the 1966 film “Sult” (or “Hunger” in English). The film, a co-production of artists in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, tells the story of Pontus’ efforts to find food while maintaining his pride and dignity in Oslo, Norway, in 1890. Swedish actor Per Oscarsson does a brilliant job portraying the enigmatic writer Pontus as he wanders Oslo hoping to sell an article that will give him enough money to keep him from starving. Every scene in the movie focuses on Pontus and his often puzzling balancing act between feeding himself and maintaining his pride.
With the camera avoiding obvious point of view shots, we can only surmise that the lack of food alters Pontus’ perceptions and that we can only observe the inevitable outcome of a disenfranchised and stricken artist. We understand his motivation to feed himself and grow as a creative person, but we cannot view the world as he sees it. The film doesn’t put us in his position, but in the position of the puzzled population of Kristiania (the name for Oslo from 1877 to 1925).
Pontus’ journey includes stops at a couple of boarding houses where no-nonsense landladies sense his unease but offer him very little help. He’s like a wild animal who can easily sleep on the street, but he needs a place to stay so he can finish a magazine article and collect a promised 10 krona. As he wanders the streets, he becomes overly obsessed with the passing hours and often asks policemen for the time. This seems to mean little to him except for giving him an excuse to thank them graciously.
In one instance, Pontus’ hunger becomes so debilitating that he chews on a discarded bone from a butcher shop. This makes him sick but he nevertheless dreams of fighting for a similar bone with a big black dog. In other cases, he finally does get a meal but can hardly stomach it after a few bites and abandons eating it. Perhaps this shows that Pontus strives for creative freedom rather than simply satiating his appetite.
A subplot involves a woman Pontus becomes obsessed with after passing her in a park. She notices his attention and becomes intrigued by him despite his apparent madness. He calls her Ylajali, a mythical and beautiful feminine figure in his imagination. Later they meet and go on a date of sorts, but nothing turns out to be predictable in their relationship. In this story of unsatisfied desires, I could only expect their rendez-vous to provide little comfort to him.
The film comes from a great novel by Norwegian master writer Knut Hamsun, who lived from 1859 to 1952. Henning Carlsen, the Danish director of Hunger, explains in the DVD how fortuitous it was that the cast and crew filmed Hunger in the mid-sixties. Oslo changed much in the ensuing years and it would have been more difficult to imitate Hamsun’s vision of old Kristiania. Carlsen made a classic film helped immensely by the brilliant performance of Oscarsson, who won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for Hunger in 1966.