Hour of the Wolf

Hour of the Wolf ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Hoop-tober 2018 #16

Stepping Stones Challenge (Rewatch Edition): 100 Actors, 100 Movies #20 (Liv Ullmann)

Afterthoughts: Hour of the Wolf. Mystifying, deeply personal and downright disturbing. Undisputedly one of the greatest horror films of all time!

With a story focussed on a tortured artist (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Liv Ullmann, carrying Bergman’s child in reality at the time of the screenplay’s conception) going through a rough patch, to those well-versed in Bergman’s work and life, it becomes immediately apparent that this is one of his most personal and introspective films, and in many respects one of his most accomplished.

If horror as a genre is defined by fears, which simultaneously explores and deconstructs those experienced by the author while transferring them onto an audience, then Hour of the Wolf is the ultimate in a successful horror film. Sure, ghosts and masked killers instil a primal fear; that of the unknown and of survival - but there is nothing more frightening than mental deterioration; of losing one’s grip on reality and/or control of one’s actions. Of course, there are many great examples of psychological horrors and thrillers that explore these fears effectively (Polanski’s Repulsion [1965] springs to mind), but you’d have your work cut out finding a filmmaker that manages it quite as evocatively and provocatively as Ingmar Bergman at the height of his powers during a period of severe inner turmoil.

While much of the film’s successes can be accredited to legendary cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, for his startling lighting and dynamic camerawork (a strong case could be made for this being his finest work), which is complemented by eerie sound design, frantic editing, and at times, classically gothic production design and make-up, it’s two key elements that the horror genre often lacks that elevate Hour of the Wolf to the level of total masterpiece – writing and performance. Naturally, Hour of the Wolf would not be as great as it is without any one of the personnel behind the above elements contributing their terrific work, but without the sheer complexity and authenticity of the characters, and unparalleled acting talent presented by two of the greatest stars of all time, Hour of the Wolf would be all aesthetic, with its emotional heft and ability to haunt significantly compromised. I frequently think about how amazing and powerful dozens of horror films could have been, were they penned by a true artist with genuinely frightening and intrinsically human things to say like Bergman, and starred actors equipped with the proper skillset to convince us of and share in their strife.

Going back to the cinematography, there’s all manner of effective techniques on display to portray Johan’s (von Sydow) anxieties, trepidation and loss of control, and equally so for Alma’s (Ullmann) contrasting position of the emotionally-bound witness to the madness. For me, one of the most memorable sequences in Bergman’s entire filmography, is during the dinner party at the castle, when Johan and Alma sit at the table with the host and other guests. Despite being a very simple setup, the scene is presented as utter chaos, with the camera darting all over the place. The scene opens with an arc shot whizzing around the circular table, before stopping at the back of Johan’s head in close up, followed by a jump cut of Johan turning around to look at the lens. Statements and prying questions are fired at Johan and Alma in quick succession, with the camera whip-panning to each speaker like a sentry gun sensing an intruder. The cutting is quick, and so too is Johan’s rising sense of panic, which is thankfully quelled by a reassuring Alma. Even without context, the scene is frightening and anxiety-inducing, and to my mind, provides a window into the minds of people suffering from social anxiety disorders who are prone to panic attacks in simple social situations.

Another scene I am particularly impressed and haunted by, is an inserted segment during the ‘hour of the wolf’ (the last hour before dawn) scene, which is a dramatization of a story/confession told by Johan to Alma. The insert depicts Johan fishing off a low cliff side, where he is disturbed by a young teenage boy wearing only swim underwear. By his very presence, the boy appears to be bothering Johan, and when he lays on a nearby rock in what seems like a suggestively sexual position, Johan is enticed, moving closer to the boy. He leans in over him, but suddenly snaps and begins his physical assault on the boy, which after a long struggle results in his murder. Now, bearing in mind small hints throughout and the story from his childhood of his father beating him, told by Johan to Alma immediately before this insert, it seems to be implied that this scene is representative of repressed homosexual desire and the homophobic façade Johan adopts as a result. This was my reading on my first viewing when I saw it a couple of years ago. But like almost the entirety of Hour of the Wolf, in which perspective (subjective and objective) and reality and fantasy are bafflingly blurred for both characters, this sequence is a particularly tricky one to decipher, in terms of what level of reality it exists on for the protagonist, if any. On this first rewatch, I’ve come to believe that the boy in this insert represents a young, pure and homosexual Johan, who has been eternally squashed and drowned by Johan the adult, and do not believe this is an account of an actual act of murder committed by Johan during their time on the island. The main reason for this is because I listened much more closely to Johan’s telling of the punishment received by the hand of his father in the previous scene. The dialogue reads:

“…Finally the door opened and they let me step out into the daylight. My father said “Your Mother tells me you’re sorry.” I said “Yes, please forgive me.” “Prepare the divan, then” he said. I went to the green divan in my Father’s room, took some cushions, and stacked them. Then I fetched the cane, unbuttoned my trousers and leaned forward onto the cushions. He said “So how many strokes do you deserve?” And I answered “As many strokes as possible.” And he struck me with the cane, hard enough, but not more than I could bear. When the caning was over, I went to my Mother and asked “Mother, can you forgive me now?” She cried and said, “Of course I forgive you.” Then she offered me her my hand. I kissed it.”

This was clearly a traumatic moment in Johan’s life with deeply scarring effects, but to me it also feels like a moment of enlightenment, of sexual awakening. The fact Johan’s punishment involves cooperation and acceptance from himself (albeit commanded by an authority), and the fact he himself asks for an unquantifiable amount of strokes and that he is able to bear such a generous beating on his backside, seems suggestive of a sense of masochistic enjoyment. This monologue (presented in Bergman’s trademark shot, which composites a speaker and a listener with one closer to the camera than the other, one in profile, the other face-on) juxtaposed with the aforementioned scene of murder, is one of the most intense and horrifying moments of the film itself (and we haven’t even got to the ‘horror bits’ yet), of Bergman’s filmography, and I’d go as far as saying of cinema in general. The ‘hour of the wolf’ section, which is roughly 13 minutes long and comprises the two aforementioned accounts plus a few minutes prior (in which Johan watches matches burn and explains what the hour of the wolf is) makes for an overwhelming and exhausting period of time, which feels much longer than it is (in the best way possible). It engrains disturbing imagery on the viewers’ minds, first through powerful dialogue that one cannot help but conjure up accompanying pictures and feelings of their own, and secondly through the more horror-typical method of visceral visuals. And now we are truly inside Johan’s mind, just in time for the anarchy and unease of the final half hour or so. We are granted little space to recollect ourselves before the intensity of the downwards spiral, and before we know it 25 minutes of confusing, fear-inducing and gorgeously captured surrealist horror fare pass before we are faced with Alma’s haunting final question, addressing us directly by lamplight. The passage reads:

“Well, there is one thing I’ve wondered… Are you in a hurry? I’d like to ask you something. It’s like this: Isn’t it true that when a woman has lived a long time with a man… isn’t it true, she finally becomes like that man, since she loves him and tries to think like him and see like him. They say that it can change a person. Was that why I began to see those ghosts? Or were they there anyway? I mean, if I’d loved him less, and not bothered with everything there around him, could I have protected him better then? Or was it that I didn’t love him enough that made me so jealous? Was that why those ‘cannibals’, as he called them… Was that why we came to such grief? I thought I was so close to him. Sometimes he said he was also close to me. One time he said it with certainty. If only I could have followed him, all the time. There’s so much to keep pondering… So many questions, sometimes I don’t know which way is which, and I get completely........”
[Fade to black. No credits.]

This is certainly one of the most abrupt endings I’ve ever seen, and Bergman made an immensely bold and brilliant decision (even for his standards) to do away with a lot of footage shot for the epilogue, extended prologue and various scenes created to deter audiences from realising how connected to Berman’s actual circumstances at the time the film was. Hour of the Wolf is the perfect length, the perfect blend of personal introspection and nightmare-inducing entertainment, and it took a couple of decades to be regarded as an immensely significant work in Bergman’s filmography and cinema in general; it’s an acceptance and celebration that rightfully grows year in, year out, and a wrong that only time can make right. The entire film with English subtitles is on YouTube (though DVD quality is preferred) and can be watched HERE. It’s one of the few films ever to crack my Top 100 favourites with only a single viewing, and now on a rewatch I can confirm its ascent into the upper echelons of my Top 50. If you haven’t seen it, WATCH IT!

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