Per Oscarsson’s performance in Henning Carlsen’s Sult is one of the greatest performances in all cinema and a brilliant example of an actor expressing the unfathomable complexity of one man’s state of being by performing simple actions scene by scene. Oscarsson does those actions each scene demands of him, one action in one scene, another action in another scene, then another in another and so on throughout the film, and the sum total of these actions equal the character. This is oppose to coming up with an “idea” about the character and dragging that idea through every scene and every line of dialogue until the audience is sufficiently bored that the only thing left for them is to appreciate the actor’s technique.
Oscarsson plays Pontus, an impoverished writer in 1890 Christiana (Oslo), and spends most of the film trying to avoid starvation (at one point eating the dust he has wiped off a cabinet with his hand) after he is made homeless early in the film. His efforts to find work are frustrated for various reasons and he visits the pawnbroker several times to raise funds. He also falls in love with a coquette he nicknames Ylajali (played by Gunnel Lindblom) . However, his goal is to get an article he has written published in the newspaper.
Now, one of the important aspects of the character of Pontus is his pride, and there are many displays of this pride during the film, as when pawning his hat he tells the pawnbroker he needs the money for cigars when we all know he needs it for basic sustenance, or when he tells Ylajali he was drunk to explain away strange behavior which had, in truth, been brought about by starvation.
Pontus’ displays of pride, however, are more complex when they seem, at first glance, to be against his own best interests, and they are also when Oscarsson’s performance is at it’s most brilliant. A crucial example is when Pontus finally gets a meeting with the editor of the newspaper. The editor informs Pontus that he liked the article and that he thinks Pontus has talent, and if Pontus’ll do some rewrites he’ll publish the article. Fine. The editor then offers Pontus an advance on his wages but Pontus declines the offer despite the fact he hasn’t eaten and needs the money to pay for his new lodgings otherwise he’ll be homeless again. What does Oscarsson as Pontus do after has declined the cash advance? He meekly thanks the editor, muttering under his breath, and bowing several times whilst making his exit walking backwards. It’s like a menial before an emperor.
Oscarsson is doing one action in the scene, namely: ensuring his article gets published, and everything he does is to that end: he exits walking backwards because he fears turning his back on the editor may cause offence and jeopardise the article. Similarly, he does not accept the advance because he fears the editor may think him lowly which again may jeopardise the article. That he cannot pay the rent as a result is unimportant to him because his action is to ensure his article gets published, and Oscarsson only concerns himself with this action. And this is why Oscarsson is so moving in the scene: we witness true courage, selflessness, Oscarsson puts his ideal before his immediate material well being, and, in so doing he reveals how precious and fragile his work is to him, and how he dare not do anything to damage it, and all of this bound up in only a moment of his performance. There are no expository emotions or fake little indications to make sure we get the “idea”, he’s not playing it “now-I’ve-turned-down-the-advance-i-cant-pay-my-rent-and-will-be-homeless-again-AREN’T-I-BRAVE”. No. Oscarsson gives us the truth by doing an action.
And that is the pattern of Oscarsson’s performance throughout the film. He performs a simple action truthfully in each scene, and allows the context within which the action is performed to do it’s work. He does this action in one scene, then that action in another. This action then that action. This then that.
NB – I have concentrated on one small part of Oscarsson’s performance, to cover all of it would be far more than a blogsworth. Further, I highly recommend watching this remarkable film, which I had never heard of until recently, when filmmaker Rouzbeh Rashidi suggested I watch it , recommending Per Oscarsson’s performance specifically. The film’s called Sult and it was directed by Henning Carlsen.