Max Von Sydow
1 Hr., 33 Mins.
Hour of the Wolf
February 27, 2020
he creative process can be nightmarish. But it’s never, at least in my experience, as nightmarish as it is in Hour of the Wolf (1968), the only horror movie in Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre. It stars Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann — among Bergman's most treasured collaborators — as Johan and Alma Borg, a couple which, at the beginning of the movie, relocates to Baltrum, a minute and barren
German island. Johan, lanky and austere, is a painter. Pretty, sensitive Alma is a housewife and is pregnant with their first child. It’s made clear, from the get-go, that this is not going to be a happy film. We learn, via a title card, that Johan has long been missing. The film almost totally takes place in flashback. Present-day scenes feature Alma, gazing at the camera and sitting wanly at a table al fresco, as something of a documentary-feature subject. She nervously recollects the traumas she’s only recently experienced.
Hour of the Wolf is a losing-grip-on-reality-style horror movie. Almost as soon as the Borgs start to make themselves at home on Baltrum, Johan begins having uncanny visions. In them, he’s visited by Kafkaesque characters, like a man whose visage looks like that of a bird (is the beak natural, or some mask?, Johan wonders at one point) and a woman who can peel off her skin as if it were a candy-bar wrapper. Johan frantically sketches the figures to try to make sense of them. The more time he spends on the island the more affected by an unusually bad bout of insomnia does he become.
Bergman, who was inspired by his own night terrors as he worked on the screenplay (which has origins in 1964), imbues in the film some more direct autobiography, like some of the childhood traumas by which Johan is revealed to be disturbed and Bergman’s own relationship with Ullmann. But Hour of the Wolf is more so slaked with a roundabout kind of autobiography.
The film is of course not to be taken at face value, given its surrealism. (The feature’s creepiness is exacerbated by the stark, asphyxiated black-and-white photography by cinematographer Sven Nykvist.) Here you’ll see shifty-eyed men played by Erland Josephson crab-walk on ceilings and women who let out a sigh of relief, as if they were taking off their high heels, when they rend their hat, then entire face, with the ease of a taking off a jacket. But the film ultimately seems neither like an exercise in unusual-for-Bergman images-first phantasmagoria nor merely a dramatization of a marriage crumbling because of a husband’s traumas catching up to him.
Hour of the Wolf is an allegorical perversion of the artistic process. The “demons” threatening to eat Johan up (who in the film are first presented to us as purely off-putting fellow islanders, reminding of the neighbors in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) are really just Johan’s demons embodied. They endanger the fate of his latest creative breakthrough and his life in general. Other double meanings are conspicuous. An erstwhile mistress (Ingrid Thulin) who’s said to be lurking somewhere on Baltrum, for instance, is a stand-in for artistic inspiration, elusive and equal parts intriguing and threatening. Perhaps the island itself is a proxy for the flicker of an idea. The need to successfully colonize it is an attempt to see that flicker turn into a full-on fire. Alma is a straightforward depiction of the tolls one’s artistic aspirations and/or neuroses can take on the people in the artist's life.
Hour of the Wolf is so baldly allegorical that we can’t be that frightened by it, despite the memorable ghastliness of the images that especially come to the forefront during the last act of the film. It unsettles, but it’s too analytical a horror feature to effectively function as one. In the best terror-blighted movies, a sense of unmanufactured-feeling insecurity simmers underneath the surface. Maybe the demons will take over after all. Hour of the Wolf does indeed suggest that demons have a good chance of taking over. But that key unsafety isn’t there. You can feel the seams used to construct the movie. Bergman, in spite of being a savvy imagist, never lets loose. The visuals, and the ideas affixed to them, feel too fretted over to inspire us to let our guard down and get shaken up. Yet even though it doesn’t entirely live up to its freakier possibilities, Hour of the Wolf is still a memorable creativity-is-horror movie — and the images, eventually, are what stay with you. B+