“According to the ancient Romans, the Hour of the Wolf means the time between night and dawn, just before the light comes, and people believed it to be the time when demons had a heightened power and vitality, the hour when most people died and most children were born, and when nightmares came to one.”
Setting the stage for what will follow with this ominous introduction, Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 feature Hour of the Wolf (Swedish title: Vargtimmen) is probably the closest the director has ever come to making a horror film, one that crosses over into the realm of the supernatural.
Hour of the Wolf unfolds with the intriguing framing device of having Alma Borg (Liv Ullmann), the wife of painter Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), recount to an unseen interviewer, the strange disappearance of her husband and what lead up to it, the film’s main narrative unfolds from Johan’s point of view as Alma reads his diary.
Living in seclusion on the coast of a desolate island, Johan and his pregnant wife begin to experience overwhelming feelings of dread and apprehension triggered by Johan’s recurring nightmares and a fear of the dark. Even his wife begins to see apparitions which may or may not exist.
When one of them, an elderly woman, encourages Alma to read her husband’s diary that he keeps hidden under the bed, she learns of a previous mistress, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin), who once again enters his life when his socially prominent neighbors invite her to visit them. This unsettling development along with a series of strange incidents, haunting visions and creative frustrations drive Johan to the brink of madness, while his wife tries but is unable to relieve his tormented state of mind.
Much closer in tone to his bleak psychological dramas of the early sixties (Through a Glass Darkly , The Silence ), Hour of the Wolf was the first film in a trilogy that starred Max von Sydow as the director’s alter ego; the other two films are Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969).
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.”
In the end, Hour of the Wolf is a gothic and disturbing meditation that is often impenetrable in its meaning though a good deal of the film works solely on the power of its imagery – a man who suddenly walks up the wall and onto the ceiling, an old crone who removes her eyes, places them in water glasses and then tears off her face, a young, half-naked boy who attacks Johan while he is fishing and is beaten to death and tossed in the sea where his corpse hovers like a ghost just beneath the surface.
Bird references are also abundant throughout the film, from the beaklike, predatory features of the sinister Arkivarie Lindhorst (Georg Rydeberg) to a wind-whipped line of laundry that sounds like wings flapping in the breeze.
Bergman admitted that the Tod Browning version of Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi was a major influence on the film. Even the behavior and appearance of Johan’s neighbors in the castle seem straight out of Bram Stoker’s novel; the way they flock around the painter hungrily at a dinner party suggests vampires moving in for the kill.
Another inspiration was Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute (which Bergman would later adapt for Swedish television in 1975 followed by a theatrical release). In one sequence, dinner guests assemble to watch a puppet theatre presentation of a musical selection from The Magic Flute, except that the performer isn’t a puppet at all but a miniature person. Hour of the Wolf is full of disorienting, slight-of-hand magician tricks like this and often seems more grounded in the world of nightmares than reality.
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.
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 Ullmann, who was living openly with Bergman at the time, gave birth to his daughter Linn during the shooting of Hour of the Wolf. Though they never married, the couple would collaborate on a total of ten films together, including Face to Face [Swedish title: Ansikte mot ansikte, 1976) which earned Ullmann an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
One of the strongest attributes of Hour of the Wolf is Sven Nykvist’s striking black and white cinematography, although the veteran cameraman 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.”
While many critics found Hour of the Wolf to be one of Bergman’s lesser works, the film had its champions. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote “…if we allow the images to slip past the gates of logic and enter the deeper levels of our mind, and if we accept Bergman’s horror story instead of questioning it, Hour of the Wolf works magnificently. So delicate is the wire it walks, however, that the least hostility from the audience can push it across into melodrama. But it isn’t that. If you go to see it, see it on Bergman’s terms.”
In a similar vein, Renata Adler of the New York Times commented, “…it is unthinkable for anyone seriously interested in movies not to see it.” The film went on to win the Best Director award from the National Society of Film Critics and the Best Actress Award for Ullmann from the National Board of Review.
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.”
Hour of the Wolf was first released by MGM Video as part of a 5-film Ingmar Bergman DVD boxed set in April 2004 that was accompanied by extra features along with the titles Persona, Shame, The Passion of Anna and The Serpent’s Egg. In January 2006 MGM released Hour of the Wolf as a single DVD with extras that included interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson and a commentary by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais. The film made its appearance on Blu-Ray in November 2018 thanks to The Criterion Collection which included it in Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a 39-film boxed set with more than thirty hours of supplemental features. It is not available separately at this time but if you’re a Bergman fan, this is the best and most comprehensive collection of his films ever released on home video and the price is reasonable considering the quality of the transfers.
* This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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