Feb 8, 2012
While suffering a minor yet artistically fruitful nervous breakdown in 1965, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman managed to churn out a most distinguished script that would eventually evolve into two very different (albeit equally personal) films: Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968). Both of these extremely intimate works would prove to be among Bergman’s greatest work, but only one would be from a genre the director had yet to work within: the very rarely artistically serious horror film. Of course, Hour of the Wolf is not your typical horror flick and it is certainly the sort of horror film one would expect Ingmar Bergman to bring to the mostly schlocky, cheap shock genre. Instead of dealing with real anthropomorphic hellions lurking amongst the shadows, Hour of the Wolf protagonist Johan Borg (played by Max von Sydow) – a psychologically unstable artist with a dubious and incessantly pestering past – falls prey to the tragic instability of his own mind and the Jungian archetypes that inhabit it. On top of suffering insomnia, most especially during the vargtimmen (‘the hour of the wolf’), Johan is constantly approached by taunting and peculiar beings he believes to be demons. The wholly devoted support of Johan’s beautiful, pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) seems to be only in vain as even she – a noble woman who stays up and comforts him during the vicious vargtimmen – cannot bring an inkling of solace to his petrified soul. Johan and Alma call a small cottage on a quaint secluded island with an ancient castle their home. This island setting, a virtual microcosm of monotonous metaphysical madness, only adds to Johan’s caustic claustrophobia and unflinching feeling of impending doom. Essentially, Hour of the Wolf is a fresh and new take on the gothic horror story that is full of bold Bergmanian phantasmagorical imagery and typically stark Nordic isolationism and self-imposed alienation.
Ingmar Bergman has made no lie about the fact that Hour of the Wolf is one of his most personal and autobiographical works. Knowing this unsurprising fact (as all of Bergman’s films are to some extent autobiographical) makes the film all the more macabre and authentically confounding. Of course, anyone that knows anything about Bergman’s life knows that he was not the easiest man to like (as expressed most vividly by his own children), but one must certainly respect the Scandinavian filmmaker’s brutal honesty, especially in regard to using the idiosyncrasy of his own internal pain as a proper and constructive outlet to the push the envelope of filmmaking. In Hour of the Wolf, through the character of Johan, Bergman attempts to come to terms with alienation from one’s lover, an irretractable past, homoerotic demons (resulting in the most deplorable of crimes), and the personal validity of one’s art among critical spectators. Unsurprisingly, a couple years before he passed away in 2007, Bergman openly admitted that he could not even watch his own films as he found them intolerably disheartening. In Hour of the Wolf, the cinema spectator can easily see why the Swedish filmmaker found his art to be so emotionally repellant, but, of course, just like any other horror flick, most viewers have the advantage of not fully identifying with the reality of these distinct psychological horrors. Hour of the Wolf is a film about a man on the verge of total, but somewhat unpredictable, self-annihilation; and therein lies the true terror of the film. Johan is a man that has an impossible time dealing with himself, let alone his fellow human beings; a thought that, to a degree, scares even the most fully committed of renegade recluses. In fact, one could easily make the argument that Johan makes the aggressively misanthropic, wolf-like protagonist Harry Haller (also played by Max von Sydow in the 1974 film adaptation) from Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf (1927) seem like a dandy puppy with too much free time on his hands. The ‘hour of the wolf’ featured in Hour of the Wolf is when Johan is at his most lycanthropic and vehemently anti-social; the time where he feels most susceptible to turbulently transcending his flimsy humanity. The real ‘monster’ of Hour of the Wolf is undoubtedly Johan, but he is a strangely sympathetic monster nonetheless and even monsters have emotions.
As per usual, Swedish cinematographer and longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist produced some of the greatest scenes ever committed to celluloid for Hour of the Wolf. If any cameraman can be said to have refined and perfected the art of ‘Gothic’ filmmaking, it is most certainly Nykvist; a man who only minutely worked within the genre. In my humble opinion, Hour of the Wolf also features the most brilliant Gothic castle scenes ever featured in a film before and after it. Like many classic horror stories and films, Hour of the Wolf features nefarious aristocrats whose cold, astringent souls are only rivaled by the brutality of stone that holds together their empty, dark dungeons. In Hour of the Wolf, Bergman manages to combine a realistic psychological portrayal of perniciousness bluebloods who are guided by their conspiring idle hands with mythical elements one has come to expect from classic horror films, which is further consummately complimented by Nykvist’s bold, naturalistic (yet strangely somehow supernatural as is the case in Hour of the Wolf) filmmaking. Possibly Nykvist’s greatest achievement with Hour of the Wolf was his ability to make scenes set during daytime seem almost as apocalyptically foreboding as those shot during the dead of night, especially during a scene where a small boy is consumed by an oceanic tomb in what is easily one of the most eerie and memorable scenes in all of cinema history.
Ingmar Bergman described ‘the hour of the wolf’ as follows, "the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. The Hour of the Wolf is also the hour when most children are born." It is also indubitably true that Bergman’s marvelous melancholy masterpiece Hour of the Wolf was painfully begotten during this seemingly untimely hour. Just as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stayed wide awake in state of indefinite internal despondency while in an opium trance during ‘the hour of the wolf’ as he codified his timeless philosophies, Bergman channeled his extremely personal anvil chorus into one of the most adept and ominously sublime horror films (and films in general) that could not have been more ideal for classic black-and-white film stock. Antonin Artaud once said something along the lines that, "no one creates except to get out of hell." If Hour of the Wolf is not an expression of personal perdition than I do not know what is. Not only is Hour of the Wolf one of the greatest horror films ever made, but it also one of the most gallant and uncompromising artistic expressions from an artist on the infernal internal demons that possess one – and what one must possess – to create great works.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:35 PM
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