Vargtimmen (AKA: Hour of the Wolf) – 1968
Director – Ingmar Bergman
Starring – Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, and Erland Josephson
Hour of the Wolf presents a much darker and scarier side of Ingmar Bergman than I’ve seen in any of his other films, without letting up on the acting or characterization that remains the hallmark of any Bergman movie.
This film is populated with some of Bergman’s regular stable of actors, including Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, and Max Von Sydow. Ullmann and von Sydow play Alma and Johan Borg, a couple who have sequestered themselves on a remote island so that he may deal with his inner demons with a relative amount of privacy. Seemingly, everything starts off on the up and up, but it quickly becomes evident that he is tortured by something, so much so that it keeps him up nights. While Johan is distant and brooding while dealing with his fears, Alma, like a lot of female characters in Bergman’s works, saddles herself with the blame and responsibility of caring for him. Unfortunately for them both, all she manages to do is join him on his descent into madness.
The imagery used is unsettling, and remote, causing the feeling of being further from safety. The couple has chosen this secluded place in an attempt to find a safe place, but instead the (almost) deserted island presents more dangers than it shelters them from. The feeling of isolation and helplessness increases as Johan’s described demons (the lady who threatens to take her hat off, and with it her face, the man who is disguised as a bird, and the lusty former conquest who is probably dead), begin to take shape in the form of the island’s other in habitants.
The line blurs even further when we learn the root of Johan’s guilt, and we start to believe there is more madness in him than sanity. The telling of this story is a mixture of documentary, flashback, hallucination, and incomplete third person testimony, which only increases the unreliability of what actually happened. The film starts as Liv Ullmann exits their cottage to a waiting (and unseen) documentary crew. She tells of how Johan became more and more distant from her as he decended further into his fantasies. From this we move on to what seems to be a flashback, peppered with further flashbacks and discussions with people who may or may not be there. Little by little Alma is corrupted by the visions, and she starts seeing the same “ghosts” that Johan does. At first we take for granted that her story is being relayed to this unseen documentary crew, but soon enough we’re not sure if they are the end result of her own madness.
Possibly the most unsettling part is, when at one of the final gatherings of the various characters, the old lady wearing the hat finally takes it off. The whole movie has built to what happens next. We watch as Johan unravels before our eyes, assailed with imagry borrowed years later for such classics as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The power of this imagery is the fact that it is not over-used, and for the entire first half of the movie is only hinted at, and suggested.
Filmed entirely in high contrast, black and white photography enhances the unsettling feel of the entire film. From sunrise to mid-day, and from sunset to the titular hour of the wolf, the lighting borrows and lends in equal measure from the mood of the characters. A walk home at dusk is much more threatening, while we feel more self assured during the bright day time scenes. Even through watching this lesser known film (at least it was lesser known to me) it is certainly easy to see how longtime Bergman cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, won his two Oscars (both Bergman films Fanny and Alexander and Cries and Whispers) and was nominated for numerous other awards worldwide.
Though, Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen in Swedish), isn’t one of the films first thought of when you hear Ingmar Bergman, it is still a valuable exercise in tone and atmosphere, and is truely representative of what makes a Bergman film. The lonliness and tension are palpable, and by the end, just like someone who is going mad, we question everything!
“More like The Hour of the Get the Fuck Over!” – Ashley