Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 16:27
Sitting in our perfectly heated homes and reading about the misery of generations past should dispel any doubts about the progress of human technology. And this film by Henning Carlsen should cast out any romantic notions of a cold, crisp winter in turn-of-the-century Christiania, which for three hundred years was how we referred to this city.
We do not know the full name of Pontus (Per Oscarsson), our protagonist, doomed to suffer the indignity of poverty and the greater indignity of famine. Although the majority of Norwegians at this time were very poor, he stands out among his fellow citizens, and not only because he hails from some rustic province. They stare at him as he drinks out of a fountain, they stare at him because he is too puny and myopic to meet the simple job criterion "nice young men in good health." He refuses charity of any kind and insists that he is anything but poor and hungry, since these are the basest of human conditions. There is something child-like in his spastic movements and collisions with passers-by, the way he talks to his shoes, bows to the walls of a room as he leaves them one last time, follows people and says silly and provocative things, spouts pseudo-ironic statements that are supposed to demonstrate his talent to the world, and, of course, supplies endless excuses for why a man of his stature could possibly have such an appearance. “Why don’t you go back to the country?” asks his long-suffering landlady. Well, there he can assure himself of literary failure.
The story is based on an eponymous novel (Sult) by Knut Hamsun, who also lived in destitution before his star rose sufficiently high to garner him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. Many have complained that there are too many Laureates from the Scandinavian countries, who won a fifth of all Literature Nobels through 1974 (culminating in the infamous awarding of the prize that year to two of the judges), but none until this past year. Whatever one may think of his credentials as a writer, Hamsun's portrait is accurate: Pontus's life is banal, boring, and depressing, with episodic expressions of frustration, public scorn, and brief hope. There are no prostitutes with a heart of gold (as in some of the works of this writer whose portrait hangs in the editor's office), conniving tricksters, or cruel gentlemen or ladies to twist the knife any deeper. Everyone treats Pontus in roughly the same way, that is, they pity him but understand his refusal to pity himself as arrogance bordering on madness. When he pawns his vest to give an even lowlier welt binder a bit of money, he reprimands him when the binder realizes that he has pawned one of his last possessions to get it (Pontus doesn't even have a coat), a perfect example of both his benevolence towards society (giving it a part of himself, like his writing), and his rancor when he is told that he should keep his generosity.
What is most remarkable, however, but just as accurate, is how small Pontus's world really is. Time and again he comes across the same policemen, society folk, and wretched welt binder, and drops in on the same pawnbroker and newspaper editor. Policemen in particular are accorded a special place among his gripes because their job is to maintain the status quo of a society that has not accepted him yet ("I know the police," he says, "they always deny the facts"). Somehow, towards the end of the film, we understand that Pontus will be accepted eventually. Oscarsson, who fasted for weeks to take on the role, has a face you will not soon forget. Not because he is desperate and gaunt and filthy, but because he so detests pity, charity and anything that he or anyone else has not earned. He is so proud and principled as to seem irrational, and he knows no compromises. He would rather die than succumb to the vulgar temptations of conventional living. There is a certain beatific refulgence in his expression in the film's final shot, which is pleasing to heart and mind. And if you know who Ylajali is, you can also make a proud Norwegian smile.