By Christian Monggaard, film critic and reviewer at Information, 2006
We are in Kristiania (today’s Oslo), capital of Norway, in 1890. A shabby young writer wanders aimlessly around, hungry and penniless. He is evicted from his rented room because he cannot pay the rent. He gives his last money to a tramp in an attempt to preserve his self-respect. He puts on an act for himself and his surroundings. Raises his hat and is courteous as if he were a fine gentleman without a care in the world. But no one, not even he himself, is taken in. In the end he has no more things to pawn. The pawnbroker will not accept his glasses, the buttons of his jacket or the worn blanket he is carrying under his arm.
He tries - unsuccessfully - to get work at a grocer’s. He writes an article for a newspaper. It is accepted, but he does not get the money until the following day and then he immediately gives it away. This makes him feel good. He falls in love with a beautiful young woman he sees in the street and he has an unforgettable rendezvous with her in her flat.
Henning Carlsen’s hypnotising film about the starving artist is based on a novel by world-famous Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. The lead part is played by Swedish actor Per Oscarsson. He won an award at the Cannes Film Festival 1966 for his almost scaringly intense performance.
We experience Kristiania through the writer. Either he is in the picture or we see the surroundings through his eyes. We take part in his despair and understand his need to keep up appearances. He declines any offer of help - in this way he maintains his dignity. But for how long can he go on living like that?
Art and suffering
In the writer’s opinion, an artist is above material things. Perhaps it is hunger and suffering that enables him to write and be an artist. Hunger in itself has become an artistic project. The American writer Paul Auster calls Hunger the best filming of a work of literature he has ever seen.
Did you know?
Georg Brandes believed that the novel Hunger was monotonous and lacked action. Knut Hamsun replied: "I have avoided the usual poetry with marriage and country walks and intricacies of the wholesaler - it is far too cheap for me. What interests me is the infinite movement of my soul, the quirky, peculiar minds, the mysteries of the nerves in a starved body." (From a letter to Brandes, 1890).
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Film, 2006
Hunger is one of the most original and distinctive films in Danish film history. It is based on Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s breakthrough novel and is one of the very few novel-to-film projects that stands up to the original source. The film had its premiere in the same year as the Morten Korch film Krybskytterne på Næsbygaard. However, Hunger is the polar opposite to the popular comedy’s jolly cosiness. The story follows a few days in the life of a young author who, desperate from hunger and loneliness, wanders around the city. Subjectively and feverishly, the film charts the landscape of the city – and the soul – through minor events, such as when the young man proudly refuses to accept charity from a passerby and instead is forced to gaze longingly at other satisfied diners. A chance glimpse of a young woman as he is out walking, and the young man’s fascination in her, is the film’s poetic high point.
Through this – at first glance – hopeless universe, director Henning Carlsen succeeds in unfolding a story filled with humour and portrays a voracious, existential appetite for life. The portrait of the young man (Swedish actor Per Oscarsson’s finest ever performance) draws a line in film history back to Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, and the photography in the film combines the best from the classic black-and-white tradition with the modern camera’s suggestive and restless camera techniques. Others including the modernist author Peter Seeberg and Roman Polanski’s composer Krzystof Komeda brought their talents to the project, and the film, even by international standards, is in a class of its own.