“Directors always say—and I think they mean it—that they’re telling a story. They tell a story and they don’t want to have an interpretation of what it ‘means,’ symbols… I think, for example, Hour of the Wolf, it can look like it was a lot of symbols. I don’t think it is. It’s a scary story, narrated very simply, even if the persons are very surreal.”–actor Erland Josephson (Baron von Merkins)
PLOT: The prologue explains that the artist Johan Borg disappeared from his home on the Frisian islands, and that this film is a recreation of events from his diary and the recollections of his wife. Borg has disturbing dreams, and the characters from the dream, along with an old flame, appear before him in real life. As the days wear on, the hallucinations become so intense that his wife seems to share in them, and the ghostly party invites the couple to visit them at the local castle.
- According to the film, “the hour of the wolf” is the time between midnight and dawn when most people die and most babies are born.
- The film began life as a screenplay entitled “The Cannibals.” After Bergman was hospitalized with pneumonia, he stopped working on the script and instead produced Persona.
- Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann had an affair during the making of Persona, and Ullmann became pregnant with Bergman’s child. The actress did not want to relocate to Fårö to live with Bergman (who was still married to concert pianist Käbi Laretei at the time), and stayed in Oslo until Bergman sent her the script for Vargtimmen and convinced her to come to Fårö to make the film. She gave birth to the child before the movie was completed.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: When describing the figures that appear to him in his nightmares, Johan Borg mentions “the old lady, the one always threatening to take off her hat. Do you know what happens if she does? Her face comes off along with it, you see.” That’s not just a tease; although we never see Borg’s sketch of the character, Bergman later comes through with the literal vision of the old woman removing her face along with her hat.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy at the beach; walking on the ceiling; face-off hag
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Themes of creative frustration, infidelity, humiliation, forbidden sexual impulses, and existential angst manifest as a court of demonic aristocrats who lure the artist and his love into a web of madness and self-destruction in Hour of the Wolf. Gothic imagery fits Ingmar Bergman like a comfortable shadow, and his only outright horror movie is every bit as philosophical, eerie and inscrutable as you could hope.
Clip from Hour of the Wolf
COMMENTS: According to Liv Ullmann, when, pregnant, she fled Ingmar Bergman’s arms after completing Persona, he convinced her to return from Oslo by rewriting his long-gestating “The Cannibals” script to expand the role of the female lead. Ullmann goes so far as to imply that the rewrite made the wife into the central character (a minority interpretation, for sure, but a tenable one). This was not the first time a writer has molded a script to the talents of a leading lady, but may be one of the clearest cases of seduction through screenwriting. At any rate, although we do not know what the previous incarnation of the story was like, we know that it had been troubling Bergman, and we can speculate that increasing the role of Johan’s wife Alma was likely an improvement. If Hour of the Wolf focused too much on Johan’s private torments, the movie might have been narrowly claustrophobic. The strained relationship between the couple adds a new dynamism to the story: it simultaneously works to create a release valve when Johan’s solipsism threatens to drown the movie, as well as creating a new channel of anxiety as Alma worries that his madness will sweep her away, too.
There is irony in the fact that Ullmann, the woman for whom Bergman left his wife, here plays the neglected woman. Despite the framing device of Alma relating the story of her husband’s disappearance to the filmmakers, the way that infidelity is handled confirms that this is primarily Johan’s story. After reading his diary, Alma is not angered by the revelation that Johan is seeing visions of his old lover, one Veronica Volger, and does not accuse him; rather, like a dream woman, she stands by her man, empathizing with the suffering the memory causes him. Johan’s infidelity of the mind does not wound Alma directly; rather, it pains her that the internal struggle causes him pain. Of all the entities that torment Johan, Veronica Volger is the only one the movie identifies as based on a real person, one with whom Johan shared an irrational passion. This gives her a special ontological status among the phantoms. She represents a temptation for Johan, and his thoughts of her are slowly driving a wedge between his wife and him, creating a crack which the other entities—who want Johan for themselves, Alma warns—are eager to exploit.
Creating a link between Johan’s illicit lust to his artistic vocation, the Baron’s wife keeps Borg’s portrait of the mysterious Veronica Volger hanging in front of her bed. Like all of Borg’s canvases or sketches, we never see the art itself. We do see him occasionally scratch out his doodles and throw his sketchbook on the ground in disgust. Bergman directs us to focus not on Borg’s creations, but on Borg as creator. We know that he has retreated to the island in hopes of a creative renewal, because his work is not going well and he is suffering from insomnia. In a central speech, Johan confesses that he sees his vocation as a curse: “There is nothing self-evident in my creative work except the compulsion to do it. Through no intent of my own, I have been pointed out as something apart, a five-legged calf, a monster… I may at times have felt the wings of megalomania sweep across my brow, but… I need for only one moment to remind myself of the utter unimportance of art in the human world in order to cool myself down again. But that does not mean the compulsion does not remain.” Despite his attempt at humility, the speech inspires the Baron’s party to applaud and toast his genius; a passive-aggressive dig at his artistic ego? At any rate, a man who has a compulsion to create but finds himself unable to do so is as artistically stymied as a man in a dying marriage is sexually frustrated.
The demonic entities use Volger as the bait to lure Johan to his doom; she becomes the centerpiece of the ritual that shames and disintegrates him. This surreal, nightmarish sequence is the centerpiece of the movie; all that came before serves merely as context, the raw material out of which the dream is spun. He encounters each of the entities in turn. Johan goes through a series of erotic humiliations: an old woman forces her attentions on him, Veronica’s current lover pimps her to him, and he is painted with lipstick and eyeliner. Finally, he discovers Veronica, laid out like a corpse or an offering, but rather than fulfillment he finds himself the victim of others’ voyeurism. The artistic obsession, which had seemed so central to Johan’s crisis, is forgotten in this sequence, replaced by the primal urges of sex. Or, perhaps the whole scene reflects the aesthetics of the Archivist, who explains of a favorite passage from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”: “Hear the strange and illogical but genial rhythm… This is no longer the name of a young woman, but an incantation, a sorcerer’s formula.” Johan’s end is also a magical/erotic/creative ritual, one in which he finds himself the ultimate sacrifice.
Hour of the Wolf is far more mysterious than the above considerations make it sound. Almost everything in the movie is an enigma, from an ambiguous scene where Johan appears to kill a young boy (in self defense?) to the nature of the creatures who call him to the castle: are they witches, ghosts, demons, or hallucinatory aspects of his own personality? And yet despite the obscurity, it is clear that the film is very personal, and the conclusion that that Johan—the angsty, self-doubting, guilt-ridden artist who has issues with women and fidelity—is a stand-in for the director is inescapable. It would be, of course, uselessly reductionist simply to consider Vargtimmen as an abstract self-portrait of the artist in crisis and then be done with our analysis. If that were the extent of it, who would care about the movie besides Bergman’s long-dead therapist? Hour of the Wolf oozes Bergman, but the movie engages us because it touches upon fears we all share, from the simple (nightmares, Gothic castles, inexplicable happenings) to the complex (performance anxiety, being emotionally consumed by our loved one, losing our grip on sanity). The ability to take personal obsessions and transmute them into fascinating objects we can personally connect with is a gift possessed only by the greatest artists. Bergman’s alter-ego may have shattered himself with his passions, but the director dazzles us with the image he finds in the shards of the broken mirror.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It takes great power for an artist to win through to the edge of madness, suicide, memory and guilt so continuously as Bergman does and come back with so much that seems familiar, out of an old dream or an old nightmare.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Bergman penetrates the man’s subconscious to extract a series of bizarre nightmares and imaginations. He slips these hallucinations back and forth across the line of reality, so that occasionally what seems to be a dream becomes gruesomely real… we allow the images to slip past the gates of logic and enter the deeper levels of our mind, and if we accept Bergman’s horror story instead of questioning it, ‘Hour of the Wolf’ works magnificently.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Hour of the Wolf (1968)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Hour of the Wolf | Ingmar Bergman – Background and supplemental information on the film from the Ingmar Bergman Foundation website
Hour of the Wolf (1968) – Turner Classic Movies’ entry hosts six clips, an essay by Jeff Stafford, and more links
In Love with Liv Who Loves Life: Surviving Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf – Gordon Thomas essay for Bright Lights Film Journal exploring how Bergman and Ullmann’s relationship informed Vargtimmen
DVD INFO: As was the case with Persona, MGM did a surprisingly fine job with the Hour of the Wolf DVD (buy). The digital remastering looks wonderful, particularly in the high-contrast scene where Johann fights the boy on the beach, and the criminally underrated (and unavailab;e) avant-garde soundtrack by Lars Johan Werle is striking and eerie. Supplements include the trailer, a mini-doc entitled “The Search for Sanity,” circa 2002 interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson (who played the Baron), photo galleries, and a thought-provoking but unassuming commentary track by Bergman scholar Marc Gervais. This disc is included in the six-disc “Ingmar Bergman Collection” box set (buy), which also comes with Persona, Shame, The Serpent’s Egg, and Passion of Anna, plus a disc of supplemental material. Hour of the Wolf is not yet on Blu-ray at the time of this writing.
(This movie was nominated for review by “George,” who claimed it was “the weirdest Bergman film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)