Bee’s Bergman Diary- Hour of the Wolf

This is entry number 5 and we are half way through my challenge to watch 10 films by Ingmar Bergman. Although I must admit I have been watching other films by the director as well, simply to fill in the gaps. Even though, I won’t be writing about Persona, I think watching it along with Hour of the Wolf, will make for an interesting double bill as both films deal with very similar themes. Such as the obsession of being an artist and the main characters experience a crisis in identity.

Released in 1968, Hour of the Wolf, emerged from a from a manuscript with the working title “The Maneaters”. Due to a severe case of pneumonia, Bergman had to interrupt his work on the project. After regaining his health, he wrote and directed Persona before returning to his earlier script which he re-wrote and filmed under the title Hour of the Wolf.

In regards to the film’s title, Bergman explained that “The Hour of the Wolf” is “The time between midnight and dawn when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most palatable. It is the hour when the sleepless are pursued by their sharpest anxieties, when ghosts and demons hold sway. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”

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The film follows Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant young wife Alma (Liv Ullmann). They live on the small island of Baltrum, where he seeks rest after a crisis which is not detailed. Johan is a painter and seeks a place where he can be left in peace to paint, however he is regularly approached by odd and suspicious people.

He confides to Alma that he believes them to be demons, and begins to give names to them, including the Bird-Man, the Insects, the Meat-Eaters, the Schoolmaster (with pointers in his trousers) and The Lady With a Hat. On the nights when Johan cannot sleep, Alma stays awake by his side, doing her best to care for her husband, but it’s apparent that he’s slipping further and further away from her.

One day, an old lady stops by the house and tells Alma to read Johan’s diary, which he hides under his bed. Alma discovers that Johan is not only haunted by the real or imaginary strangers, but also by images of his former lover, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin). Now Alma must compete with Veronica for the affections of her husband.

The couple are approached by a Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson), who lives in a nearby castle, and Johan and Alma visit them and their surreal household. Which ends with truly horrifying meal shot with a dizzying panning camera, circling the dinner table.

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As Johan’s mental impairment worsens, he begins to confide in Alma more and more, revealing some truly disturbing things. He tells her of the “vargtimmen” (“Hour of the Wolf”), during which, he says, most births and deaths occur. He also recounts his desperate love affair with Veronica and his childhood trauma of being locked into a cupboard where, as his parents said, a small man lived who fed on children’s toes. Then he recalls a confrontation with a small child, which is shown via a silent flashback with Lars Johan Werle foreboding dramatic score.

The film is often surreal, with certain scenes occurring in a trippy dream-like state (or rather nightmare-like). The dinner scene is truly disturbing as the camera goes around the dinner table relentlessly. The actors are all shot within a tight close-up/mid-shot, their faces filling up the screen, so we feel trapped.

Both von Sydow and Ullmann give excellent performances here, although it is essentially Ullmann who steals the show as the artist’s long-suffering wife, which one must assume she had a lot of experience to draw upon. This is certainly one of Bergman’s more overlooked films, but I think it makes a perfect companion for Persona; although maybe it would be best to enjoy these films in the daylight and not on a deserted island!

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