"All is lost, ladies and gentlemen, all is lost!", Pontus screams hysterically in the middle of the street, inviting more of those never-ending, curious stares from passersby. Pontus, a gaunt, bespectacled man, now almost over the edge with his gradually deteriorating mental faculties is the pitiable soul at the center of Danish filmmaker Henning Carlsen's "Hunger" (1966). This is a harrowing portrait of a defeated, down-on-his-luck writer, reduced to a lonely, penniless wanderer, with nothing to eat and no permanent roof over his head. The viewer becomes a mute spectator, as the hunger in Pontus' stomach systematically begins to eat away into his sanity...
An air of gloom and desperation almost instantly engulfs us at the onset of the film. A creepy background score accompanies the scene in which we are introduced to Pontus (Per Oscarsson), a man of thin build, standing over a bridge, observing the water below and scribbling something away on a single piece of paper with a small pencil. The paper and the pencil are his only possessions, aside from a quilt which he keeps in his dingy old rented place, the rent of which, he has not been able to pay for an unknown period of time. The scribblings are possibly the beginnings of a new masterpiece, or simply delusional musings of a man who isn't able to think straight. It appears, that the latter is true, for Pontus goes on to promptly tear that piece of paper up and attempt to swallow it!
On the surface, "Hunger" is a film that focuses on an impoverished character struggling to survive in the city of Oslo. This film is, however, quite different from the Italian neo-realist films of Vittorio De Sica. Carlsen's main focus is not the tribulations of Pontus but rather on the disastrous effect of his miserable state on his mind. His sufferings are distressing to say the least, but they serve as vehicles in outlining his mental imbalance, worsened upon being torn apart between poverty and a sense of pride which he refuses to compromise on, even if it comes at the cost of lies.
Pontus is without money or a morsel of food in his stomach, and yet just to show that he is not one of them, he quickly pawns something in order to offer some alms to a homeless man. He has but one pair of clothing on him, a coat, a trousers, and a hat that he so religiously doffs in an attempt to appear sophisticated. Upholding his dignity is of utmost importance to him, and he wouldn't so much as touch a free meal even offered by an old acquaintance, if only to not let it out that he is in need of any kind, including his pining for some grub.
He would rather feed off the dust in an old cupboard, or chew on discarded bones from a meat packing factory! Of course, this he would do quite surreptitiously, and promptly go on to hide if he feels he is being watched. It's a heartbreaking scene, and yet while some part of us would back his will to preserve his honour, it is troubling to see him refusing help when it comes his way. Even when it comes to self-respect, how much is too much?
Pontus is a delusional man, perhaps living in denial, refusing to accept that he has been reduced to this. It is hinted later in the film that he once had a good life, which he is now deprived of. He meets acquaintances who recognize him from a time not so distant, indicating he has been reclusive and aloof from the public eye owing to facing failure, but is not quite ready to admit it, perhaps in the hope of regaining his lost paradise.
This inability to cope with a setback and a feeble mind that is a product of an empty stomach give way to hallucinations and sudden bursts of hysteria. These are often accompanied by those abundant muscular twitches, an inherent part of Pontus' body language that manifest to a greater degree, when he is at his most honest, whilst delivering a tirade. He is quite vocal about this honesty too, even unable to eat a meal bought out of accidental money he receives owing to a shopkeeper's mistake.
Pontus strikes conversations with random people, tries to make a pass at a beautiful girl (Gunnel Lindblom) in a rather awkward fashion, knocks at strangers' doors and asks for completely made up names claiming he has an errand or an appointment of some sort. A touch of humour is added to the proceedings, when he always asks the cops the time, every time they so much as approach him for seemingly suspicious behaviour. This is his only connect with other human beings, the momentary escape from his loneliness which often gets the better of him and he talks to himself or even to his feet!
The camera hovers about Pontus most of the time, and at times his face looks directly at the camera; a steely gaze that seems to eerily lock eyes with the viewers, daring them look away and almost evoking a sense of guilt. How many times have we seen people on the streets talking to themselves and either greeted them with stares, or walked away from them? Could one of them be suffering like Pontus does? Carlsen gives us food for thought, and a chance to take a look from the other side. It doesn't get much more accurate than this.
Carlsen's film, is a bleak masterpiece, a film so soaked in tragedy that it seems like there is no escape from the despair and madness, especially since, for those 110 odd minutes, we almost follow Pontus' every move in his miserable existence. The film is shot in stark black and white adding to the atmosphere of haplessness. Despite having a destitute character at its center, Carlsen completely eschews any heightened melodrama, and designs his film as a doom-laden, psychological mood piece.
And at the heart of it all, is the extremely talented Per Oscarsson, whose weak frame carries the film on his able shoulders with such finesse, it is difficult to tell whether he is even acting. This is one unforgettable performance that deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest lead acts in film ever.