“Hour of the Wolf” -- Ingmar Bergman (1968)

Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (Swedish: Vargtimmen, 1968) is a horror film that journeys into the realm of personal dread – a frightful dimension from which there is seemingly no escape, since the disturbing threats come from within.  The film was made during a particularly introspective period of Bergman’s life, and it probably explores his own personal traumas and demons.   Thus as a drama, the film is particularly somber, even for Bergman.  Primarily for that reason, Hour of the Wolf initially drew mixed reviews.  However, those who were sensitive to Bergman’s existential themes were more appreciative of the work [1,2].  And the film has gained in stature as time has gone by, so that by the time of the British Film Institute’s 2012 Director’s Poll concerning the greatest films ever, Hour of the Wolf, was ranked 44th [3].

One of the fascinating, and challenging aspects of Hour of the Wolf is the stance that it adopts concerning reality.  At the outset the film presents itself as an account of objective reality concerning what happened to a troubled artist who had apparently vanished without a trace.  But as the film progresses, the presentation becomes more subjective and problematic in terms of its objectivity.  Are we watching what really happened, or are we seeing the imagined fantasies of disturbed individuals?  Bergman shifts the perspective at various points and leaves the viewer, like the artist, on precarious middle ground.  This is what annoys some viewers and fascinates others.

The story of Hour of the Wolf is about an artist and his pregnant wife when they made a holiday stay at a small island.  In the end the artist disappears, and the film is said to be based on the diary that the artist had left behind and his wife’s recollections of those last days.  So the beginning of the film is presented almost as if it is a documentary reconstruction of past events.  This sense of objectivity and narrative “distancing” from the subjects is heightened at the beginning of the film during the opening credits, when Bergman and his film production team can be heard on the soundtrack preparing for a cinematic take.  (Apparently Bergman intended to have even more of these production intrusions that break the viewer’s suspension of disbelief in the film, and this was because Bergman felt that the artist’s problems in this story were too closely linked with his own personal issues [4]).

The narrative objective distancing effect is gradually abandoned as the story proceeds, and soon the viewer is seeing the world from the subjective viewpoints of the artist and his wife.  In fact since the artist is an opaque and narcissistic character, the wife’s sympathetic perspective and her consequent efforts to empathize with her husband’s experiences are crucial to the overall message of this story.

In addition to the brief opening and closing scenes showing the artist’s wife recounting and reflecting upon what happened to them, there are five narrative segments making up the story that the wife tells.  Collectively those narrative segments show the artist’s descent into the maelstrom.

In the beginning of the film, the artist’s wife, Alma Borg (played by Liv Ullmann) faces the camera, in a long 3:37 shot, and offers some background about her husband Johan (Max von Sydow) and their marriage of seven years.  She then begins recounting their arrival at the small island of Baltrum, which is one of the Frisian Islands off Germany.

1.  Arrival
The loving couple of Johan and Alma Borg arrive at the island to stay in a small cottage, but it is soon clear that the painter is troubled about himself and his inability to work effectively.  He suffers from insomnia, and she stays up with him during his sleepless nights.  He soon shows her some of his sketches of bizarre people he has met on the island, and based on his brief descriptions (the viewer doesn’t see the sketches), we and Alma know that he is seeing phantasmagorical images.  Alma lovingly (and hopefully) tells him, though, that she believes that when people live together for a long time, they start to resemble each other.  She wants to share everything with him.

2.  The Diary
The next morning outside the cottage, Alma suddenly sees an old woman oddly dressed all in white.  This is the beginning of the surreal images that will eventually pervade the film.  The old woman seems to know something, though, and tells Alma to read Johan’s diary, which has been hidden under their bed.

Alma finds and begins reading the diary, the accounts of which are now presented dramatically.  One account concerns Johan meeting Baron won Merkens (Erland Josephson), who owns the small island. The Baron invites Johan and Alma to a party at his castle on the other side of the island.  Another account shows Johan painting outside and approached by an attractive woman, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin), with whom, we will later learn, Johan had previously had a five-year affair.  Johan passionately kisses and then undresses the woman out in the open.

3.  The Party
At the party, the modest Johan and Alma are introduced to a number of wealthy attendees, but the atmosphere is oppressive and suffocating.  The other partygoers are pushy and raucous, and Bergman cinematically presents the garish goings-on with obtrusive closeups and swish pans.  (Some of these people were presumably the triggers for Johan’s earlier disturbed illusionary sketches.)  Eventually, Johan is hailed by the others as a great artist and asked to comment about art to them.  To this invitation Johan nervously responds with an awkward and self-indulgent speech that only adds to his discomfiture.

He is further embarrassed when the Baron’s wife, Corinne von Merkens (Gertrud Fridh) shows the couple a portrait by Johan of Veronica Vogler and then makes rude comments about Johan’s earlier affair with the woman, to the discomfort of Alma.  The entire oppressive atmosphere is pushing Johan closer to a nervous breakdown.  Alma can only watch in sympathetic alarm.

4.  The Hour of the Wolf
At home, Johan has another sleepless night and tells Alma about the Hour of the Wolf, which is the last hour before dawn:
"The hour of the wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is the deepest, when nightmares feel most real. It is the hour when the demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”
He then tells her about a traumatic moment when he was a young boy and his parents had punished him by locking him in a dark closet.  This was a horrifying experience of threatening annihilation that he had never gotten over.

Then he recites another recent event that is shown in dramatized form – an early teenage boy had approached him while he was fishing off the edge of a cliff.  The proud boy was silent, but impudent and intrusive, and this somehow greatly disturbed Johan’s sense of his own dignity.  He finally attacks the boy and beats him to death.

In the morning Johan and Alma are visited by another member of the castle entourage, who invites them to another party, at which Veronica Vogler is expected to be present. The visitor also leaves with them a handgun to defend themselves from small game on the island.  After Alma expresses her concerns about her husband’s obsession with Veronica and reads aloud to him a telling passage about the woman from his diary, Johan picks up the gun and shoots her.  He then runs away to the castle.

5.  The Shattering
At the castle, the distraught Johan encounters still more disturbing freakishness. An old countess commands him to kiss her feet, and he submits, almost helplessly.  Another castle resident says he will lead Johan to Veronica, but first he must prepare Johan with powdery, effeminate makeup.

When he finally enters the room where Veronica is, he sees her naked, motionless body on a slab and  presumes she is dead.  As he lightly caresses her inanimate body, she suddenly laughs out loud and pulls him to an erotic embrace.  But Johan’s lovemaking is stalled by the raucous laughter of all the castle residents who are now seen jeering his amorous attempts from the back of the room.  Some viewers see the brutal mockery here as black comedy, but it is only a horrific manifestation of sadism on the part of his tormentors.  Johan is totally broken now, and he tearfully thanks them all and says to them,
“the mirror has been shattered, but what do the splinters reflect?”
Then Johan returns to his cottage and writes further in his diary.  Alma was not killed by Johan’s gunshots, but she is hiding away in fear.  After Johan runs away into the woods again, the worried Alma follows him at a safe distance.  She does find him lying down morosely, and she soothes him with an embrace.  But after dozing with him in her arms for a moment, she awakens
to find he has run away again, further into the forest.  She sees him in the distance being beaten by the illusionary castle people, after which they all finally disappear from view.

Back in the “present” and with her tale now finished, a demoralized Alma asks her interviewer whether if she had loved Johan less she could have protected him more.  This is Bergman’s question, too.


It was a continuous downward spiral for Johan all the way in Hour of the Wolf.  Alma was sympathetically drawn into Johan’s netherworld, but she was unable to save him.  She came to empathize with his horror, but she couldn’t get inside his head in order to steer him to safety.  So there are two fundamental perspectives presented in the film:
  • Existential horror, as evinced by Johan.  His fear is that of annihilation, and it presumably goes back to his childhood experience in that dark closet.  His self-understanding, which is something he tried to promote and achieve through his art and his passion for Veronica, has dissolved into nothingness by the end of the story.  Some viewers criticize Johan for being narcissistic, but when one is faced with utter extinction, one can’t help but be obsessed with his or her own fate. 
  • Love and commitment, as shown by Alma.  She has surrendered to her love for her husband and never questions this even when he tries to kill her.  Her solution to despair  is total submission to love.
Some critics have suggested that these two perspectives reflect the differing real-life positions of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, who were lovers during this period [5].  But I suspect instead that the two perspectives in the film reflected a division within Bergman’s own mind.  He felt the horror, but knew what the love was, too.

A weakness of the film is that the narrative offers no temporary gains or upward turns, no grounds for hope.  And despite the existential horror that Johan faced, it is difficult for the viewer to empathize with him.  He seems opaque and closed off.  But one can empathize with Alma.  Liv Ullmann’s sensuously expressive face throughout the film shows a person continually suffering for her beloved.  It is her journey, not Johan’s, that ultimately makes the film worthwhile.  She was different from Veronica in that she offered not romantic flights of fancy but total loving engagement. Johan’s only path to life was probably through her, but he was too far gone to be able to do anything about it.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Renata Adler, “Screen: Where Nightmares Converge:Bergman Puts Spirits in 'Hour of the Wolf'”, New York Times, (10 April 1968).  
  2. Roger Ebert, “Hour of the Wolf”, RogerEbert.com, (11 December 1968).  
  3. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  4. “Hour of the Wolf”, Wikipedia, (3 December 2016).  
  5. Gordon Thomas, “In Love with Liv Who Loves Life: Surviving Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 August 2006). 

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