‘Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen)’

Hour of the Wolf

“It is the hour when the most people die and the most are born. At this time nightmares come to us. And when we wake, we are afraid.”

‘Hour of the Wolf’ (1968). Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Georg Rydeberg, Erland Josephson, Gertrud Fridh, Ingrid Thulin, Naima Wifstrand.

So then… this movie happened. This incredible, bizarre, hypnotic movie from Ingmar Bergman called Hour of the Wolf, a phrase which apparently requires only one word in Swedish: “Vargtimmen”. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do the film justice or that I should humiliate myself by even trying. Its full meaning may remain impenetrable to me but it’s a fascinating piece of cinema. So, here I go…

Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) is a tortured artist, perhaps the tortured artist, a painter whose work is almost never shown to us. While living with his wife Alma (Liv Ullman) on a remote island he finds himself tormented by entities he identifies as people but describes as carnivores and insects. There is a man who looks like a bird and a woman who threatens to remove her face. Are they real or are they terrifying figments of his imagination? It seems they are the latter but his wife has begun seeing them as well. She is approached by one who suggests that she read Johan’s diary. What she reads anguishes her but draws her deeper into his life and his madness.

I watched this with my friend again, picking the movie from the random list of the the great horror films streaming on Netflix. We laughed and joked through early parts of the film. We weren’t  sure what to expect and it wasn’t even clear to me that I was watching a horror film. It moves slowly, feeling more like a gothic melodrama at first, but as the last part unfolds I found myself wrapped up in one of the most surreal horror sequences I’ve ever seen. It’s an indescribable experience, full of creepy imagery, menacing actors, and clever camera trickery. It’s a puzzle of humiliation and desperation as Johan anguishes over his descent into artistic madness.

The black and white cinematography is gorgeous. Many of the compositions include tight, intimate close ups of the actors, creating an anxious, claustrophobic atmosphere. During an early dinner scene these closely framed shots emphasize the invasiveness of the “insects” of Johan’s mind as they chatter at each other. The camera whips back and forth from person to person in what must have been a maddening exercise of timing and framing for the camera-person. Close ups of Liv Ullman make her expressions of haunted concern palpable, pulling us into her urgency to protect her husband.

Prior to this the only Bergman film I’ve seen is The Virgin Spring, which is the basic template for the rape-revenge film; Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left is practically a remake of it. Spring is strange but it could not prepare me for the surreal presentation of Hour of the Wolf. I could attempt to further describe and explore Johan’s disappearance as his “cannibals” overtake and eventually “devour” him (not literally; it’s not that kind of horror movie at all) but I cannot. Hour of the Wolf is a bewildering experience that doesn’t lend itself to coherent description or explanation. Perhaps it’s an examination of the tortured life of an artist and a warning of the risk involved when becoming too emotionally invested in his life. Or simply a cathartic attempt to portray Bergman’s own emotional breakdown on film. I don’t know but it’s one damned incredible flick.

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