by Douglas Messerli
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Monday, January 23, 2012
Henning Carlsen | Sult (Hunger)
the man who talks to his shoes
by Douglas Messerli
It must have seemed to a act of great moxie that director Henning Carlsen took on a film adaptation of Knut Hamsun's great novel of 1890, Sult (Hunger). For one thing, Carlsen is Danish, while the events occur in Kristiania (Oslo, Norway). The languages of these two friendly Scandinavian countries are quite similar, but there is just enough differences, I am sure, to distract for the Norwegian viewers of the film, from the film's Danish title, Svält, on. More importantly, in Hamsun's narrative very little actually happens. His work is a piece of internal language, a conversation with the self that the unnamed character carries on as, starving, out of work, and homeless, he wanders the streets of Kristiania. Only a few things actually "happen" to him: he writes an article and attempts to place it with a publisher; he observes a lovely and slightly flirtatious woman whom he dubs Ylajali (Gunnel Lindblom); although we cannot be certain, since many of the events are those of his imagination, he may actually visit Ylajali and contemplate having sex; he stares in the windows of the various stores and encounters some of his friends from the past; he is kicked out of his rooming house and briefly finds another (for one night) only to be ousted the next day by a boarder whom he observes having sex with the landlady; and he sits on park benches, sometimes talking to his worn-out shoes as if they could understand and converse with him. In short, there is no traditional story attached to this work; it is merely a series of psychological incidents played out upon a realist setting, the Oslo of 1890. That is, in part, why Hamsun's fiction was so innovative and ground-breaking. Without any of the gewgaws of plot, Hamsun had created a character so amazing that he stands alongside of the memorable figures of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, and others.
And, in that sense, he, and only he, is responsible for his fate. Despite Hamsun's dour and unforgiving portrayal of the Kristiana bourgeoisie (Carlsen portraying them at moments a bit like the figures in some of the paintings of Edvard Munch), it is Pontus' inability to recognize his own suicidal tendencies that is he undoing. He has talent, it is clear, but he has no idea how to reveal it. The only solution to his condition—as he has been previously told by his landlady—is to leave, to return to the country or go elsewhere. At the very last moment as a ship is about to leave port, the hero signs on. Where he is headed no one knows, not even, apparently, the character. But it does not matter to someone who talks to his shoes. It will be a better place by far, and finally he can learn again to how to eat.
by Douglas Messerli
Henning Carlsen and Peter Seeberg (screenplay, based on the novel by Knut Hamsun), Henning Carlsen (director) Sult (Hunger) / 1966
Miraculously, the film has come through remarkably well, and, although different in many ways from the literary work, is true to its essence. Of course, most of the praise must go to Hunger's brilliant director, Henning Carlsen, who filmed in black and white (and sometimes sepia), more closely linking it to the silent pictures with which is aligned. There are occasional conversations in the film, and the noises of the street itself—the clip-clop of horses, the drum of the feet of workers and ladies out for a stroll—but for all that it may as well be described as a silent film. And Carlsen and cinematographer, Henning Kristiansen, have used their camera to catch the smallest of facial and bodily nuances, the grimaces of disgust on the faces of the bourgeois citizens of Kristiania as they pass the beggar-like hero, a dog's violent gnaw of a bone (which our hero would love to share), the scuttle of a rat, the blinks of Ylajali's large eyes. All of these help to make the film come alive and replace what might have ordinarily been told in dialogue.
But a large of the film's success must be accorded to the actor Per Oscarsson who plays the hero (Pontus as he is called in the film) with all the aplomb of Chaplin and Keaton combined. Oscarsson won the Best Actor award at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, well deserved surely. From the very first scene, as Pontus stands with his back to us on a bridge, the actor completely enthralls us with his every bodily move. In this scene he seems to be doing something that we cannot quite interpret, yet appears to be something slightly obscene, a regular movement of the hands. Is he masturbating in open public? When the camera finally moves in, revealing his actions, we humorously recognize that he is, metaphorically speaking, masturbating. He is attempting to write with a pencil upon a slip of paper. Yet he seems to be getting nowhere, repeating again and again a date, circling empty words, etc. Writing is not a easy task in the open air.
Pontus, as I have mentioned above, has not eaten for several days, and when he finishes his attempts to write, he rips off a small bit a paper and stuffs it into his mouth, simply to chew on something. Oscarsson's lean, unshaven face is perfect for the role. We can see that he is handsome even in his haunting decay. If only....might someone in this society come his rescue? Yet by the film's end we know that would be impossible. This is a proud and self-destructive man, a kind of hunger-artist, determined to get by on almost nothing. He awards even his bedding to another unfortunate. Time and again, at the editor's offices and when he encounters friends, etc., asked if he needs a small advance or to them in a meal, Pontus lies to hide his penniless situation. When he is accidently overpaid at a grocers whom has visited to purchase a candle, he throws the coins into the hands a woman beggar and returns to the grocer to upbraid his inattention. When he finally is able to buy a little soup, he discovers he can longer stomach it. As played by Oscarsson, Pontus is a nineteenth-century dandy in the dress of a fool, a man—one is tempted to say, much like the author—who, despite the turmoil and terrors of the upcoming century would remain a romantic.
Los Angeles, January 21, 2012