Ingmar Bergman: Hour of the Wolf (1968) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
18Jan/111

Ingmar Bergman: Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYToday's entry, Hour of the Wolf, was written and conceived at the same time as Bergman's Persona (which I covered last week).  Both films deal with issues of identity and how that ties into our overall purpose on this planet but the approach Bergman took with each movie is drastically different.  Persona is almost aggressively experimental, an example of an artist that is trying to push his medium as far as it can go.  Hour of the Wolf feels more like a genre piece, a film that Bergman did in a Gothic style to portray the dread of his protagonist.

Hour of the Wolf is by no means a bad film but it is the film that signals a slight creative decline that would follow him over the next few feature films.  Part of the problem lies with his genre specific approach.  The strength is that it provides him ample opportunity to produce some terrifying images and scenarios.  The negative is that reliance on a genre leaves Bergman with little room to subvert expectations within the Gothic norm and Bergman does very little to deviate.

The film opens with the cast/crew credits and the hustle and bustle of construction heard in the background.  We don't see what is being constructed (it's audio footage from Bergman and crew building sets for the movie) but we know that whatever world we're being into is one that has been carefully prepared.  Another hint comes even before the sounds when Bergman chooses to display a title card with a basic outline of the movie.

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow are scared and morose, respectively. Their performances are good but more like templates for acting in Bergman films.

Johan (Max von Sydow) is an artist who went missing while living on an island with his wife Alma (Liv Ullman).  The isolation of the island and Johan's steadily growing anxieties eventually drove him mad and hedisappeared without a trace one day.  The film that we watch is pieced together from Johan's diary and the memories Alma has of her assumedly late husband.  So the layers grow, Bergman has carefully prepared this story for us and the story itself is tinged with the specific viewpoint of one character.

We watch as Johan and Alma arrive on the island and, for the first ten minutes at least, it seems as though they are happy.  But soon Johan is arriving home with sketches of demons that he cannot stop thinking about.  A woman who's face will be ripped off if she ever removes her hat, a tiny demon filled with lust that may be homosexual, a teacher that disciplines with a stick stored in the front of his pants, and many others.  It's clear that these are meant to represent certain aspects of Johan that he has fought to repress, it's the struggle that these urges play out in that is less clear.

Eventually Johan and Alma find that they are not alone on the island.  There are a group of ominous counts and psychologists who live in a castle on the opposite end of the island and seem to be stalking Johan.  It starts friendly enough with one inviting Johan and Alma to a simple dinner.  But then a woman arrives to tempt Johan with her breasts, showing him a bruise where it seems he had already tasted her.  Another man stalks Johan to aggressively inform him of his psychiatric credentials.

One strength of the film is that the demons just aren't metaphorical ones. They are tormenting Johan and Alma the entire time.

The central idea of Hour of the Wolf does reflect Persona in some way with these individuals.  They are clearly driving Johan mad but it's never emphasized if they actually exist or not.  Alma seems to be able to interact with them, but that may be because of her connection with Johan.  Twice in the film she gives the same speech (again, echoing Persona) where she asks Johan and then the audience if they believe two people can become one.  Not physically, but adopting one another's traits after living together for so long.

These scenes come as something of a disappointment after the tantalizing mystery that Bergman laid out with Persona.  Bergman rarely ever spelled out the meaning of his film so bluntly and it's typically in the worst Bergman films that he does so.  Hour of the Wolf follows the torments of Johan by the strangers to an appropriately macabre conclusion, but Bergman does not do too much else with the theme so expressly laid out.

What this film does do effectively is provide images and sequences worthy of it's Gothic setting and Bergman's interest in the way Johan's art now plagues him.  Chief among these scenes is a moment that Bergman would never in terms of pure intensity.  Johan tells Alma of one of his nightmares.  He is fishing alone when a young boy begins to pose around Johan suggestively.  Neither one says a word as the boy moves closer and Bergman brings the discordant noise on the soundtrack to a screeching high.  As Johan tries to leave the boy attacks him, screeching and clawing, eventually ending in the boy's brutal death as Johan beats him to death with a stone.

Another idea, Johan grapples will his responsibility as an artist who can affect emotions. This is creepily put forth in a demon puppet show.

This is the demon representing Johan's potential homosexuality that has been with him since he was a child.  A quick look at Bergman's notes from his book Images further emphasize the subtext already present.  Bergman initially wanted to do this scene with both the child and Max von Sydow naked but couldn't get the clearance to do so.  As striking an image that would have been, it would have gone a bit too overboard in the symbolism which is, unfortunately, the modus operandi of the film.

The acting is fine but at this point I've seen Max von Sydow as a tortured artist so many times that it's lost some of the power it had before.  Liv Ullman, finally free to speak after her largely mute role in Persona, is present as a witness and partner to her husband's decline but does have a fascinating monologue about her "role" in the end.  If she were more loving would we have been more involved and crushed by Johan's disappearance?  Or if she were more distant would we have been able to analyze Johan's emotional state better?  Beyond that she's delegated to fretting about her husband and narrating the events of the film.

When combined these elements, strangely enough, make it both one of Bergman's weaker films but also a decent "starter film" for folks that want to get into Bergman's more psychologically heavy works.   There's enough striking imagery to keep the eyes entertained and enough thought provoking ideas to engage the mind.  But it's just not enough to consider it one of Bergman's greats.  It's a solid film, no doubt about it, but he'd already hammered down smarter points about identity in the past so it's hard not to be a bit disappointed by Hour of the Wolf.

Next week I'll be continuing my look at Bergman's experimental phase with his "war" film Shame.

The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. The acting is fine but at this point I’ve seen Max von Sydow as a tortured artist so many times that it’s lost some of the power it had before. Liv Ullman, finally free to speak after her largely mute role in Persona, is present as a witness and partner to her husband’s decline but does have a fascinating monologue about her “role” in the end. If she were more loving would we have been more involved and crushed by Johan’s disappearance? Or if she were more distant would we have been able to analyze Johan’s emotional state better? Beyond that she’s delegated to fretting about her husband and narrating the events of the film.


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