“I see that something is going to happen, something evil, but I don’t know what to call it. But if you think I’m going to run away, I won’t! I won’t run away no matter how frightened I am!”
Hour of the Wolf is said to be the only horror film by the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, but Bergman’s brand of intense, often surreal black and white dramas were often only a half-step outside the genre. In The Seventh Seal, a knight plays Chess with the literal embodiment of Death; in Persona, two women seem to merge. Like many of Bergman’s movies, Hour of the Wolf is about subjective perception, about art, about a troubled marriage, and at every moment, about what’s happening in the faces of his characters. With deceptive simplicity, with one excellent shot after another, Bergman builds a story as unnerving, as haunting, and as moving as any I’ve seen. This is one of the great horror films.
Released in 1968, Hour of the Wolf seems to presage several important genre moments. Its tale of isolation, imagination and disturbingly-behaved ghosts bears strong similarities to Kubrick’s The Shining, while a frame story purporting to be a documentary account seems as fresh as found footage. But in another way, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie quite like this, with its stark yet dreamlike cinematography, a structure that moves smoothly (and ambiguously) between reality and surrealism, and particularly the way it balances two wildly different perspectives and tones. One level of the movie belongs to Johan (Max von Sydow), a troubled painter whose demons are made manifest in a manner first casual, then a slowly heightening clamor of unease. Another, often simultaneous level belongs to Alma (Liv Ullmann), Johan’s wife, who in her terror and love seems almost to be grieving Johan before he is gone. Bergman rightfully begins and ends on her face, which tells the whole story in silent looks of sorrowful vulnerability. It is that face, so genuine, so sincerely expressive of deep emotion held long that will continue to haunt me.
The story does not take long to tell. Alma and Johan move to a cottage on an island where they are in total isolation together, so that Johan may find the peace he needs to continue his art. Strangers begin to arrive, often literally walking up to them out of the far background of the frame, to offer advice, discuss the nature of art, or extend an invitation to a party at the nearby castle. Gradually we realize that these polite but borish individuals are not precisely real, but visions either conjured or recognized by Johan’s unhappy mind. What do they want with him? Johan sits up nights with insomnia, lighting matches and brooding over the hour of the wolf, that lonely moment when nightmares come. Alma keeps him company, does her best to share his pain. But what does it mean that Alma can see these people, too? Whose demons are they, really?
In the strictest sense, each of the spirits or ghosts (whatever they are) reflects some aspect of Johan with which he is uncomfortable. Sometimes these connections are very explicit. One of the main subplots involves Johan’s ex, a blonde woman named Veronica Vogler; there was some kind of scandal that remains embarrassing and shameful to him, yet he is still very much attracted to the woman. At the suggestion of one of the ghosts, Alma reads an entry in Johan’s diary where he describes encountering Vogler on the island and having sex with her; much later, another ghost prepares Johan for lovemaking and ushers him into a chamber where Vogler lies naked under a sheet on a platform like a corpse, waiting for him. The death metaphor conveys that she is a part of Johan’s past–she should be buried, but instead returns to his memory and through his art. (One ghost brags about a painting of Vogel Johan did for her: “I have, in any case, bought a considerable piece of your husband, have I not?”)
Other aspects of these surreal visions of people who should not exist are connected more subtly to Johan’s psychological history. At one point while he and Alma are sitting up at night during the hour of the wolf, he relates to her a painful story about a time in his childhood when he was physically and mentally abused–locked in a closet in the dark, then caned. Johan’s next confession leads to a scene where he encounters a young boy while fishing. The boy attacks him; the two fight, and Johan ends up murdering the child with a rock and then dropping the boy’s corpse into the sea. It bobs up, unwilling to sink away. From childhood trauma to past mistakes, Johan is ruled by unhappiness and guilt. He is not in control of his own mind, because (the film implies) he has traded that control away for the sake of his art.
It’s significant that, in the whole film, we never actually see any art, or see Johan at work as a painter. Even a short play performed via marionette on a tiny stage during the party at the castle is elided in favor of reaction shots from Alma and the others. To the film, art is a hollow pursuit, lauded only by sycophantic, bourgeois morons; when goaded into giving some statement on his artistic purpose, even Johan admits to the “utter unimportance of art in the human world,” and suggests that his own work has no purpose or distinction beyond his own compulsion to create it. The spirits seem very patronizing on the subject, calling Johan “Artist” and treating him like a pet who knows a clever trick. One tells an anecdote about the time he hung an artist’s painting upside down in his gallery as a joke; in these and other ways, the spirits subtly undermine the foundations of Johan’s identity.
If art has no value here, what does? Alma. Her sincerity, both in speaking to the camera about her experience and in relating to Johan, is the most affecting material in the film. Most horror movies begin with an idyllic period, scenes of happy domesticity that exist in contrast to the darkness ahead, and Bergman does this with a graceful economy. Sunlit shots of Johan and Alma together in their new island home linger long after they are lost to the couple. They’re replaced by moments like the one where Alma totes up her expenses for the month and Johan ignores her, or her weary attempts to match pace with his insomnia. Later that sunlit connection is threatened in a hauntingly shot scene in a forest of light and shadow, as Alma confesses to reading Johan’s diary and warns in tears that she believes something bad is going to happen to him. The idyll dies completely in a moment of terrible emotional and physical violence as Johan shoots her before venturing forth to give his demons their due.
That’s when things get really weird. Johan’s journey to the castle and beyond is the classic narrative of a symbolic journey into the self or the corruption of the self, something which goes back at least to Faust, if not all the way to ancient rites of vision quests. There’s a sense that the reason Johan must go to them and hear them out is the same as the reason they flock to speak to him–that he owns them, that they are his creation, his true art. They are nothing without him and, he fears, the reverse is also true… Yet what characterizes these scenes is our and Johan’s mounting unease with the horrors unleashed before him. A woman peels off her face. A man is so uncomfortably apologetic about his jealousness for Johan that he walks up the wall and onto the ceiling. Birds follow Johan through the castle’s stone halls, scattering in his wake. Another man puts him in a dress and make-up, claiming, “Now you are yourself, but not yourself; an ideal state for a meeting between lovers.” And then there is Vogler, the object of his desires; when he pulls off her sheet, she laughs madly at him. Everyone is watching and laughing at him, at the ridiculous spectacle of a fool indulging his obsessions. In that moment he is destroyed in every meaningful sense but the physical:
“I thank you… that the limit has finally been transgressed. The mirror has been shattered. But what do the splinters reflect?”
The rest of Johan’s story is almost anticlimax, there so that Alma can witness his dissolution and question the reality or unreality of what she sees. We know from the beginning of the film that in present day, Johan has “disappeared,” a word that seems even eerier in the context of these mental and supernatural troubles. The final horror of the film is not only the inexplicable and distressing but the mind’s inherent vulnerability to them. What’s at stake in the story is not life and limb, but sanity, happiness, identity… The combination of isolation, imagination, and the inability to drown one’s past beneath the waves puts one’s very self at hazard. All that you are may simply blow away.
The play that the ghosts put on for Johan and Alma is from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. Bergman loved the opera from childhood; about a decade after Hour of the Wolf, Bergman staged the opera for television, in a production that emphasized the artificiality of the theater. The story of the opera involves a man, Tamino, who undergoes a series of trials in order to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves, Pamina, and the ghost’s introduction to the play seems to me to be the heart of the film:
“The Magic Flute is the greatest example. … Tamino’s guides have just left him in the dark courtyard, outside the Temple of Wisdom. The young man cries in deepest despair, “Oh, eternal night, when shalt thou pass? When shall the light find my eyes?” The fatally ill Mozart secretly empathizes with these words. And the reply from the chorus and orchestra is also, “Soon, soon, youth… or never.” The most beautiful, the most shattering music ever written.”
Bergman, of course, must have secretly empathized with these words himself. Hour of the Wolf seems to have been very personal for the filmmaker (although it is hard to think of a Bergman movie that was not in one way or another). Like Johan, Bergman pursued his art in relative isolation on a small island. As a child Bergman was disciplined in the way Johann describes here. Both men had troubled marriages–Bergman was married five times and divorced four, carried on lengthy affairs, and had a child out of wedlock with Liv Ullman, who plays Alma here. A celebrated director of the theater as well as cinema, Bergman’s special talent was his ability to use the bold artifice of cinema in a way that intensified, rather than distracted from, the powerful emotions and deep philosophical ideas of his stories. In Hour of the Wolf, the camera itself is always a character. Like Alma herself, it watches with sadness, love, unease, and horror as a man is devoured alive by the cannibals of his mind. In a very long career, Bergman perhaps was never more direct or more achingly sympathetic about presenting his own worst nightmare than in this film.
Many of the movie’s images are as metaphorical as they are literal. The flames of the matches that Johan lights again and again through the long night, which push back the darkness but threaten to singe his fingers as they burn down. The cold waters where the past returns. The stony island hills where no cover exists to protect from the predations and temptations of visitors. Sparse but beautiful, the Swedish island here becomes the interior landscape of the mind, rocky and cold, containing structures long abandoned and rotten with ghosts. The only tool one has against that is the mind itself–like the magic flute from the opera, an object given to the hero which “which has the power to change sorrow into joy.” Johann has visions of strange men and women and later they appear, real as anything. His ideas, his sense of self, his moods become manifest as dreadful influences. They are his own set of trials, which Johan fails. He proves himself unworthy of the woman he loves, because his magic flute is broken: it only turns joy into sorrow. Exhausted and fearful, he sits up through the long night, trapped in the hour of the wolf. When shall the light find his eyes? Soon, soon… and never.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because the wolf is at the door. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.