The Hour of the Wolf: The decent into madness at Bergman’s behest.
“It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. The Hour of the Wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”
I watched Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf on the weekend. Not only has it been on my list for almost a year now, but It gave me an opportunity to re-watch Persona. Persona is one of my favorite films, and it is the ‘sister’ film to this one. Bergman’s tales are about the power of the artist to drive their own madness. One artist a female, one a male. In order to gain the full power of both of them, I felt they ought to be watched together.
Of the two films, Persona is undeniably the better one, however Bergman ‘not-at-his-best’ is still better than anyone else. I really enjoyed The Hour of the Wolf as I always enjoy Bergman’s films, but I did feel that his central message was a tad off in this one. It doesn’t matter. Really. It is still a film so vastly superior to almost anything you will see it is worth getting your hands on.
Important to note is Bergman’s presence at the start of the film. In the opening credits Bergman can be overheard giving instructions to and discussing with his staff while preparing a shot. This is important. It links the film with Persona, but it also presences Bergman in the film. When the film opens, Alma (now alone on the island and awaiting the birth of her child) sits at a bench and speaks to the film maker. Because of the opening credits, we assume this to be Bergman – as well as us of course.
In this address Alma (Liv Ulman) speaks to Bergman and the audience directly. She tells of her husbands disappearance, which is subsequently explored through a flashback constructed from his diaries and her words.
Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) is a very successful painter who is suffering bouts of depression, insomnia and a kind of artists block. To relieve his symptoms they travel together when Alma is pregnant to a lonely part of an island that they claim at the start of the film is uninhabited. Alma does go to great lengths to explain why they have chosen isolation and that this is not something they fear but embrace.
But Johan is regularly approached by odd and suspicious people. He confides to Alma that he believes them to be daemons and his insomnia is getting worse. On the nights when Johan can’t sleep, Alma stays awake by his side through the night, especially during the vargtimmen (“The Hour of the Wolf“), during which, Johan says, most births and deaths occur. As the film progresses, Johan begins to give names to the figures who approach him, including the bird-man, the Insects, the man-eaters, the Schoolmaster (with pointers in his trousers) and The Lady With a Hat. Throughout the film, Alma expresses her belief that two people who love each other, and spend their lives with each other, will eventually become alike.
We get the feeling that these figures represent Johan’s shames, traumas and vices. When Alma talks about wanting to grow old with him, Johan is visited by a seventy-six year old woman who taunts him about his age. It is the same woman (we are led to belive – The Lady With a Hat) that then visits Alma and encourages her to read Johan’s diaries. In the diaries, Alma reads further of Johan’s internal struggles, but also begins to experience her own fear.
We see scenes of Johan struggling with his work. People from his past start to appear, namely his ex Veronica with whom he had a passionate but destructive affair that was never allowed to resolve itself properly.
In one scene, he recounts to his wife meeting a small boy tanning himself on a rock. As the boy approached Johan, he “realized” it was a demon representing homosexuality (and sexual experimentation in his youth), and violently smashed the child’s face against a stone before tossing him into the ocean to drown. Alma reacts to the story with shock, and sinks into despair. Johan tries to persuade her to leave so he might kill himself.
However, the couple are approached by a baron von Merkens (Josephson), who lives in a nearby castle. The painter and his wife visit them and their surreal household. A very strange dinner takes place where Alma witness’ her husband losing his grasp on the moment. The other dinner guests witness it also, but take pleasure in it, using it to forge a wedge between Alma and Johan. They speak over and over of Veronica and taunt Johan with the possibility of her reappearance. Alma starts to feel her own jealousy rising.
Back in their small hut, the madness is rising to a peak. Johan, deep in dementia, actually threatens to kill Alma. Baron von Merkens appears again inviting Johan to a special event at the castle where they have Veronica waiting for him. He leaves, and Alma and Johan fight. She claims she does not want to witness him running after his ex. He fires the gun at her and she falls to the ground. She is unhurt, but plays dead in order to ward off any further attacks from Johan. Johan runs into the wilderness and back to the castle.
In the castle, things are definitely not what they seem. The guests are there again, but this time they are undisguised as the terrifying creatures Johan describes at the start of the film. A man dresses Johan in make-up and women’s clothing in preparation for a sexual encounter with Veronica, who when he is finally confronted with her, is presented as a corpse on a dining table. Johan touches the corpse, but in an intensely non sexual way. There is no remorse, shock or distress in him. However, soon all the guests are in the room and they begin to mock him and laugh at him.
Johan panics, and flees into underbrush. In the last act of the film, Alma searches the forest for her husband, only to find his mangled body. In the final moments, she addresses the camera, “Is it true that a woman who lives a long time with a man eventually winds up being like that man? I mean, she loves him, and tries to think like him, and see like him? They say it can change a person. I mean to say, if I had loved him much less, and not bothered so of everything about him, could I have protected him better?”, believing that her love of Johan spread his demons to her, so that she could not protect him.
If the question in Persona is “Is she really ill?” then the question in The Hour of the Wolf is “Did it really happen?” In both films the artists madness is heavily inflicted on an adoring other. In The Hour of the Wolf, Alma’s central question is, am I so close (in love) with my husband that I am experiencing his madness?
Much has been made of the symbolism of the film and the questions around its meanings. it is filled with intense graphic imagery. The scenes when the young boy tries to seduce Johan and is subsequently beaten and the drowned are detailed, graphic and shocking. By the time we arrive at the necrophilia scene, we are firmly entrenched in the nightmares of Johan’s mind, so they occur as gothic horror rather than real life. For me this is part of the key to the film. I don’t think the events are ‘real’, but they are shown the way they are to make us understand how ‘believable’ the daemons are. Because Alma shares his experiences, we are further led to imagine that the scenes must be really happening. It is not till Alma is absent that we feel comfortable enough to recognise Johan’s nightmares. However this is not the point, for Alma reveals to us repeatedly that she loves her husband so much she is sharing in his hallucinations.
Alma doesn’t experience the hallucinations until she is shown the images Johan drew of them. If it afer that, and after many sleepless nights in a row that she is visited by The Lady With a Hat. At this point, she moves deeper into Johan’s mind when she starts to read his diaries.
For me, Bergman has painted this film the way he has to force us to confront the reality of the hallucinations. They are real to those experiencing them. The terror in this film has to come from the confusion between what is real and what is a daemon in the mind. We are confused because the director wants us to share in the experience of confusion.
Then there is the question of what the madness really is. Why is Johan having this experience? We know this is connected to Johan’s art, but the film will not fully realise the connection and that for me is one of the problems here.
There is no question that this is a film about Bergman himself. Through the painter Johan Borg, Bergman is able to address his own feelings of anxiety and isolation as an artist as well as his tenuous relationship with society. At one point, Johan even confesses, “I call myself an artist for lack of a better name. In my creative work is nothing implicit, except compulsion. Through no fault of mine I’ve been pointed out as something extraordinary, a calf with five legs, a monster.”
Bergman initially planned to make Hour of the Wolf several years earlier but had abandoned the screenplay (entitled The Cannibals at that time) when he became ill with pneumonia and put it aside. He later returned to it in 1966 when he was living on his island retreat of Faro. “The demons would come to me and wake me up, and they would stand there and talk to me,” Bergman said.
So this is Bergman’s story, but he won’t tell us what the nexus of this madness is – or perhaps he doesn’t know. We know from Persona he thinks it comes from the art, or is an escape from the art, or is caused by the art. In The Hour of The Wolf the artist consumes his partner in the maelstrom of his madness. In Persona, the artist inflicts the madness on another in a more calculated way. However the horror of The Hour of The Wolf (in terms of imagery) outweighs that of Persona. Horror in Persona is internal. The internal in The Hour of the Wolf is made external.
The film was partly shot on location at Hovs Hallar, a rocky, coastal area in southwest Sweden which Bergman had used previously for the opening scene of The Seventh Seal (1957). Liv Ullman, who was living openly with Bergman at the time, gave birth to his daughter Linn during the shooting of Hour of the Wolf. It is important to remember this is a film primarily about the close connection between the artist and those who love the artist. The Hour of The Wolf is Alma’s story, not Johan’s. It is when Alma sees Johan’s images that she becomes infected by them. It is the great paintings that draws the strange characters of the castle into their world. The interplay between artist and those that love the artist is a savage dance of blurred boundaries where each can’t tell their own end from the others beginning.
Mention must be made of Sven Nykvist’s striking black and white cinematography. However he faced several creative challenges throughout the narrative such as the dinner party conversation scene where the camera swirls around the table, pausing on each person momentarily before flying like a bird to the next one. Max von Sydow recalled this scene, saying “Bergman wanted to have the whole dinner table conversation – all in one take. His idea was to give the actors something near to the kind of continuity in performance that you get in the live theatre. Sven Nykvist…was seated in front of us, and the table at which we sat was partly surrounding him. I remember Nykvist’s total precision in his panning technique…because when you pan from one face to another as fast as he had to do, it’s very difficult to stop each pan at a moment when you have an ideal composition on each person.”
As for the film’s meaning, Bergman probably expressed it best when he offered up this opinion: “I think it’s terribly important that art exposes humiliation, that art shows how human beings humiliate each other, because humiliation is one of the most dreadful companions of humanity, and our whole social system is based to an enormous extent on humiliation…the laws, the carrying out of sentences…the kind of school education…I experienced…the religion we officially profess ourselves adherents of.”