Written and Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Gertrud Fridh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThe old ones called it 'the hour of the wolf'. It is the hour when the most people die, and the most are born. At this time, nightmares come to us. And when we awake, we are afraid."
Hour of the Wolf is often cited as Ingmar Bergmanís lone horror film, which isnít an altogether incorrect distinction. However, itís perhaps more accurate to call it a despairing love story that represents one of the directorís most nakedly personal films; hatched during the same existential crisis that resulted in Persona, it is similarly about fractured personalities. This time, though, itís split between a pair of lovers, and the horror derives from the two being wedged further apart as one descends into insanity.
Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman (who was carrying Bergmanís child at the time) play Johan and Alma, a husband and wife who retreated to the countryside. The former is an artist who disappeared, and the latter recounts the days leading up to his disappearance. During their sabbatical, Johanís behavior becomes increasingly erratic and withdrawn; he claims he is haunted by demons that appear to him in the form of slightly sinister aristocratic oddballs that live on the other side of the island.
This might be Bergmanís sole horror effort, but Hour of the Wolf feels very similar to most of his films. Thereís a similarly airless, detached quality that youíll find in his other works; despite being considered one of his most personal films, thereís still a very impersonal quality to the reserved precision. Even in his films that arenít strictly horror, Bergmanís affinity for building a fatalistic sense of suspense is evident, and similar techniques are on display here: thereís a dry, isolated setting where the wind rustles more than it howls, and many of the exchanges between the protagonists center on Johanís creeping paranoia and odd behavior.
The sparse events and plot points also revolve around this, as the couple is sometimes visited by the strangers; Johan refers to them as being a bird-man, insects, meat-eaters, a schoolmaster, and even an old lady whose face will fall off if her hat is removed. One wonders if Johan has imagined all of this and if they represent some kind of repressed memories that continue to haunt him; however, their actual, physical presence and interactions with Alma cast doubt. They even invite the couple to a dinner party one night, and itís here we can see the cracks begin to form in Johanís mind, as his insecurities surrounding his own work come to the forefront. Like many of Bergmanís protagonists, Johan is having a crisis in faith, but it isnít in God; instead, itís in art itself, as he insists that his attempts to comfort himself are often met with the realization that art isnít even necessary in the world.
These are transparent stand-ins for Bergmanís own fears, of course, and, on one level, this is what Hour of the Wolf is about: an introspection that reflects its directorís existential agonies. Thereís a moment in the film when Johan insists that the mirror has been shattered, and he wonders what the splinters reflect; Hour of the Wolf itself is one of the splinters from Bergmanís own shattered psyche, and it reflects his overwhelming desire to confirm Art. The film is loaded with artifice, from the opening titles that feature Bergmanís crew rummaging in the background as they take his directions, to the reappearance of the filmís title to signify the beginning of the third act. These and other intrusions act as distancing, almost Brechtian reminders that what weíre seeing is a work of art. Itís almost ironic that the film is framed by the insistence that the director has received this information from both Johanís journal and Almaís testimonial, a technique that foreshadows the faux verite techniques intended to heighten reality. In this case, however, Bergman does all he can to subvert that with a constantly heightened sense of unreality, right down to the peeling layers of the narration.
A closer examination of this reveals the hidden depths and the actual story rumbling beneath the surface of Hour of the Wolf; as it turns out, itís not really about Johan at all. Rather, itís about Almaís attempt to come to terms with both her loverís insanity and even his possible infidelity (one of the strangers is a woman from Johanís past). Ullman gives an unbelievably heartbreaking turn in the film, her perpetually welled-up eyes betraying an inner desperation to cling to her husband and understand him; as always, Bergmanís camera loves her face, with her direct addresses acting as more of a confessional. She confides in us everything that must have been on her mind when she acted as the priest during Johanís own confessionals. While it seems like their relationship is becoming more frayed, Johan relates his most haunting memories; one involves a childhood punishment that had his parents lock him up in a closet, and the other is a disturbing scene that flashbacks to earlier in the summer when he had an encounter with a young boy that drives him to a curious rage (one wonders if the boyís somewhat sexual posturing awakened a sexual paranoia in Johan that also led him to believe that one of his demonic demons may also be homosexual).
All of this builds to filmís staggering climax, and indeed itís the only sequence that you might consider to be pure horror. Bergman again piles up artifice as he explores Johanís ďhour of the wolf,Ē here defined as the hour when the sleepless are haunted by ďtheir deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are at their most powerful.Ē Johanís fears are artfully literalized when he returns to the mansion to confront those who have haunted him for the entire film. Itís an appropriately nightmarish sequence that sees Bergman essentially giving us a tour through the horror genre, as he cribs on recognizable iconography. He erects a haunted mansion built on the sharp angles and deep shadows of German Expressionism and fills it with vaguely familiar sights: one of the sycophants inside (George Rydeberg) resembles Lugosiís Dracula, while Johanís lust for his mistress has taken on Poe-levels of obsession when he attempts an act of necrophilia with her corpse (after being dolled up to resemble a woman, an act that may crystallize his underlying fears of his lack of masculinity). All the while, his bourgeois audience looks on in mockery, condemning him to a terrifying and lonely moment of soul searching.
Or is he alone? Thatís the big question eventually raised by Hour of the Wolf, and the film ends with Alma wondering if he loved Johan too much or not enough, a query that trails off abruptly as the camera stops rolling (Bergmanís final artistic intrusion). This begs a sort of ambiguity, but itís easy to argue that Almaís love is pure and on pitch; she frequently wonders in the film if she and Johan will ever be an old couple who grow so closely together that they begin to resemble each other, and one can plainly see that sheís held up her end of the deal. After all, she has so accurately depicted his dark night of the soul without even being there (recall that the entire film is technically relayed from her remembrance, so she is literally narrating her husbandís internal nervous breakdown). The tragedy is that Johan, too blinded by a need for external acceptance, fails to see this; if the film is a reflection of Bergmanís own mindset at the time, one can read it as his love letter to Ullman herself (or perhaps even an apology since, like Alma, she certainly had to put up with her loverís neurosis). Itís a confirmation of the loverís place as a rightful muse, as Alma bears the brunt of the filmís tragedy.
Hour of the Wolf is a work of haunting sublimity whose minimalist aesthetic belies its staggering thematic depth. It is perhaps a clunky film in a conventional sense--much of the filmís conflict is relayed by conversations, and itís actually rather difficult to wrangle down the propulsion. Watching it unfold might not come without a certain sense of trepidation because you sometimes feel like youíre barely treading Bergmanís waters, and they are sometimes choppy and almost always abstract in this case. In the end, he pulls you through with a story thatís perhaps more sad than scary, but sadness is the aftermath of loss, and loss is accompanied by fear. Confronting oneís demons and discovering an emptiness in your own soul is a very Bergman concept thatís pushed to its horrific limits here. Hour of the Wolf can be found on DVD both in a single release and as part of a box set, with both discs containing the same content (which includes a trailer, interviews with Ullman and Erland Josephson, a featurette about the film, and a commentary with Bergman biographer Marc Gervais). You will want to make sure you track down the version with the correct aspect ratio (1.33:1), as MGM did erroneously release it in 1.66 during the initial pressing. Iíd recommend the box set since Hour of the Wolf really only scratches the surface of Bergman, and, as great as it is, it is mostly regarded as one of his minor films. Yeah, he was pretty good.
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