Ranking: #103/111

Director: Hennig Carlsen (Denmark)

Genre: Socio-Psychological Drama

Sult (Hunger) is a classic of Scandinavian cinema, a bold and unique film, painted in stark black-and-white tones, about a starving writer. Based on the novel Hunger by Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun, it fearlessly examines the isolation experienced by a poverty-stricken, aspiring author. It has been called a masterpiece of social realism and blends aspects of a period drama, set in 1890 in Kristiana (Oslo), with universal existential themes of isolation and despair. It’s one of the few studies of loneliness and hunger in cinematic art.

Two other directors who were heavily influenced by modern Existentialism, Bergman and Antonioni, tended to look at isolation in terms of failed human relationships, whereas Danish director, Hennig Carlsen, focuses on an extremely isolated individual who has no relationships at all. The philosophical source of the Existentialism these three directors explore in their works, is the thought of Danish theologian, philosopher and poet, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), and I often got the impression while watching this film that it is paying tribute to Kierkegaard’s philosophy and influence on Scandinavian and European culture and art. There’s a sombreness and sadness in the film’s overall tone, which cannot but affect the viewer, eliciting genuine empathy.

Swedish actor Per Oscarsson fully immersed himself in his portrayal of the central character, Pontus, with a nervous intensity and yet a delicacy seldom seen on the Big Screen. His Pontus is impoverished but very dignified and even proud in his poverty. His hunger is so bad it is painful for him to watch others eat.

The plot is simple yet has an inexorability to it which adds to the prevailing sadness of the dilemma Pontus faces. He’s a social outcast in a city that just doesn’t care. It’s a shameful condition for him. At one point, he’s shown eating a piece of paper he’s writing on.

His interactions are mostly about money – or rather, the lack of it. He visits the pawnbroker a few times. It is touching when he sells his waistcoat and then gives the money to a beggar, presumably out of a delusional sense of pride, to create the illusion that he’s not the lowest of the low in society. Whenever he cannot pay the rent in the pitiful digs he is staying in, his current landlady evicts him. He tries to apply for an accounting vacancy, but is rejected. Then he tries to become a fireman but is, once again, rejected, this time because he wears glasses. Everything in this materialist society Carlsen is depicting is about money. Money, not humanity, rules there.

As hunger and malnutrition bite ever deeper, Pontus begins to hallucinate. The dream sequences and hallucinations are conveyed in over-exposed light to show how disconnected from reality he’s becoming.

But his greatest hunger is the yearning to end his loneliness, to have friendship with others, to have some relationships. He suffers further humiliation when a refined, but ultimately cold-hearted,  woman, Ylajali, played by Gunnel Lindblom, invites him back to her home. She encourages him to approach her but then rebuffs him when his desire is aroused. It’s as if the upper-class woman has nurtured a morbid curiosity about this down-and-out man, while her interest, ultimately, is only skin-deep. She, too, proves to be uncaring. Slowly, inevitably, his sanity starts to unravel.

In an open-ended finale, the desperate Pontus, rejected by the city he thought would give him a breakthrough in his writing career, takes a job as a crew member onboard an outbound ship. His life is now adrift, rootless, lost and he is probably still on the brink of madness. His future is unknown.

This is a stark and claustrophobic film, but one which is both subtle and strangely mesmerising. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.