After watching two new films this weekend, you’ll never leave the door to your summer rental unlocked again, no matter how idyllic its environs. We’ve already told you about tonight’s theatrical premiere of Doomsdays, wherein a couple of ne’er-do-wells (Justin Rice of Bishop Allen and Leo Fitzpatrick of Kids) crash unoccupied Catskills cabins and help themselves to all the booze. As fantastical as that story may seem, a real-life version of it played out in Maine, where the so-called North Pond Hermit prayed on neighbors’ homes for 27 years. East Village filmmaker Lena Friedrich’s short documentary about him, The Hermit, will screen Saturday as part of the Brooklyn Film Festival.
You may have already read the memorable GQ article about Christopher Thomas Knight: in 1986, when he was 20, the loner disappeared into the woods of Maine for unknown reasons. At first he foraged for food but eventually he began breaking into houses under cover of darkness, when the homes were unoccupied, to steal food and propane tanks to take back to his camp, where he slept in a tent. He kept up the routine, speaking to almost nobody and never once seeking medical care, until April 4, 2013, when a motion detector led to his arrest during one of his burglaries.
Friedrich, a French-born filmmaker, became intrigued by Knight after reading stories about his 1,000-plus acts of thievery and realizing that locals had wildly different reactions, with some seeing him as a common criminal and others regarding him as a sort of folk hero. “I attempted to show how ‘The Hermit’ essentially had become a mirror reflecting the personal values and fantasies that people project onto him,” she writes in her director’s statement.
Indeed, her 24-minute film consists mostly of interviews with locals, many of whom thought the hermit was a myth – “it was hearsay, it was folklore,” says the officer who eventually cuffed him – until they, too, became victims. “My husband still talks about how I opened the freezer,” a woman recalls of the first time her family was hit. “I looked in, I shut it, I opened it three times because I couldn’t believe all the food was gone. So then the theory of the hermit was real to us then: there is a person that goes in and takes food.”
But not just any food: he didn’t take baked goods or food that had been unwrapped because “he figured somebody would put some kind of rat poison or hermit poison or whatever in it,” one man surmises.
Like the boys of Doomsdays, he helped himself to alcohol as well, though for some reason he went for Budweiser and other beers but never Miller Lite. Presumably beer-drinking was part of how he’d fatten himself up for winter.
Knight took great pains to keep from getting caught, even walking across roads backwards to create misleading footsteps. But eventually, one resident installed a hidden camera and caught him eating her potato chips and then putting back the bag (“that’s so gross,” she cringes to Friedrich). She noted that he wore “nice pants” and didn’t seem like much of a hermit. (Indeed, he helped himself to other peoples’ clothing, though he kept the same glasses he wore in high school).
Knight told authorities he only spoke to one person during his 27 years off the grid. One interview subject, a hunter shown in the clip above, tells Friedrich that he encountered Knight but decided to leave him in peace after the hermit gave him a friendly nod that indicated he might’ve been a fellow Vietnam vet.
The hermit himself doesn’t make an appearance in the film – which isn’t surprising, given how reluctant he was to speak to Michael Finkel (the journalist who was played by James Franco in True Story, by the way) for his GQ piece. But we do get to see Knight’s campground, with its wadded toilet papers, faded issues of National Geographic and Playboy, and the radio antenna he rigged to the top of a tree to keep up with current events. Despite his solitude, he knew who the Kardashians were.
“The Hermit” shows Saturday, June 6, at 10:30pm at Windmill Studios, 300 Kingsland Ave, Greenpoint; tickets $13