Hour Of The Wolf (Vargtimmen)

Sweden (1968) Dir. Ingmar Bergman

By the end of the 60’s the Swedish master of existentialist melancholy Ingmar Bergman, in keeping with the psychedelic culture of the period, had begun to get darker and experimental with his films, exploring the insecurities that plague artists via intricate surreal tales.

Coming after his celebrated mind bender Persona, Bergman presents us with another challenging psychodrama. Told by Alma Borg (Liv Ullmann), who addresses the camera directly, the story is set on a remote island where a pregnant Alma and husband, painter Johan (Max von Sydow) are on holiday. At first things are fine but soon Johan suffers from insomnia.

As he tries to paint, Johan is distracted by the odd inhabitants of the island whom he refers to as demons. Then a mysterious old woman (Naima Wifstrand) stops by the holiday home and tells Alma to read Johan’s diary, which reveals to Alma that her husband had been having an affair with a woman named Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin). But Alma wonders if all of this is actually real or a product of her husband’s tired mind.

Bergman actually began this script in 1964 under the working title The Maneaters but ill health saw him shelve it before making Persona upon his recovery. Many of his previous films have been a platform for Bergman to vent his thoughts and explore his own feelings on subjects such as religion, but Hour Of The Wolf feels more introspective and personal than before.

Using the fragility of artistic genius and the external influences which can harm or even destroy that talent as a launching point, Johan finds his mind has become a haven of torment. The insomnia is just the start, causing him to reject Alma and make her feel unloved. When she learns of the affair, Johan doesn’t deny it but doesn’t try to defend it either which upsets Alma further.

An invitation to dinner at the castle nearby belonging to Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson) and his wife (Gertrud Fridh) introduces us to the demons Johan met along with other residents of the island. The evening is a horribly awkward and unnerving affair for the couple, but it temporarily assures Alma her husband isn’t mad.

It is the ambiguity of the intentions of the von Merkens and the other guests that makes the party such an uncomfortable experience. While they do their best to integrate the Borgs into their world, the division between them is gargantuan. This is a fine example of making something out of nothing – no human body parts are consumed or perverted games played but it requires a certain eccentric personality type to belong in this gang.

But this is the tip of the iceberg and Johan suffers from far deeper delusions and torment the history of which he reveals to Alma, who remains unable to determine what is real and what is fiction. Because Bergman uses his films to excise his own demons, film scholars have postulated that the childhood revelations of Johan are a representation of Bergman’s own childhood traumas.

The mastery of his storytelling is that his films never feel autobiographical nor is there a sense that Bergman is projecting his internal and personal issue onto us. The end result might be too arcane for some to appreciate but at least his films make us think and perhaps explore how we view, understand and confront our own “inner demons”. 

Adopting a surreal approach allows Berman to present Johan’s nightmare world with the realism of random, logic defying trips into the deepest reaches of our subconscious we’ve all experienced during our nightly slumber. Things don’t go too far, aside from one person who removes their entire face, but there are plenty of absurdities aimed at the arts world to make this congruent to the film’s central target.

Shot in black and white with a heavy chiaroscuro veneer, and incorporating a frantic, quick edit, close-up camerawork mise-en-scene, Johan finds himself rushing desperately about the castle, meeting each one of his demons along the way. This disturbing journey through the labyrinthine layout of the castle is a visual highlight of the film, serving as another effective the assault on the viewer’s perception of reality as much as it does for Johan.   

Elsewhere there is what I can recall as a first for a Bergman film, and that is unbridled violence. Death is a recurring theme in his films but I don’t think he has ever relayed the act of killing on screen before; if he has, it wasn’t in such a brutal and ferocious manner as depicted here. There are in fact two instances, neither are essentially graphic but the first – as a pivotal plot development – is the more disturbing and feral of the two.

With the defined psychological themes so prominent, if you are looking for answers you won’t find any here, but this is to be expected from a filmmaker who always ends is films by cutting to black and eschewing end credits. We are left with a philosophical quandary from Alma questioning the psychological validity of a true, deep loving relationship which no doubt led to a few intense discussions between the intellectuals watching.

As ever, the cast submit themselves to the director’s whim, with his trusted cadre of regulars Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann (who was carrying Bergman’s child at the time) and Ingrid Thulin leading the charge with their committed and terrifyingly convincing performances.

Because Bergman’s films are an acquired taste, following them can be a bit of a task but his unique visual style, emotionally intensity and probing dialogue at least holds our attention until the end. Hour Of The Wolf – referring to that time of night when people die, babies are born and nightmares are at their most potent – is one of the harder films in his canon to get on a first watch but is a curious entry nonetheless.