“The hour between night and dawn … when most people die, sleep is deepest, nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their worst anguish, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most babies are born.”
Considering the time of year it currently is, I figured it would be fun to cover some Swedish horror films for the column. How unfortunate for me then that we have a serious lack of great or merely good horror films here in this country. And I’ve already covered one of our most internationally successful horror films when I wrote about Let the Right One In. Other than that I’m honestly not left with much choice, so it became something of an issue when trying to come up with Swedish horror films worthy of writing about. But then I was struck with the realization “if you’re a Swedish cinephile and in need, just look at the oeuvre of good ole Ingmar Bergman,” Yes, our very own spiritual Dala Horse in the world (quote from Bo Widerberg) has a wide range of films in his filmography, and a surprising variety in terms of genres explored in them. Beyond the existential dramas he’s also made some comedies, plenty of love stories, a war film or two, a multitude of religious dramas etc. But on only one occasion did he ever make a horror film, with that being his follow-up to possibly his masterpiece Persona, 1968’s Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen). And it just might be one of his best films to boot.
In Hour of the Wolf, we see the familiar Bergman-esque struggling artist in the shape of painter Johan (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant young wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) traveling to their house on the island of Baltrum. But this being a Bergman film, things aren’t too great. Johan becomes neglectful of Alma and never seems to do any actual painting, but seems to be drinking all the time away instead. At the same time, things begin to turn to the stranger, surreal and more nightmarish as Johan becomes haunted by visions and memories.
Despite the project originating before Persona in the shape of a script titled The Cannibals, it still feels very much like a film Bergman could only have made after such a watershed moment as Persona in that it builds almost directly upon the constant blurring line between reality and dreams. The film does also feature, like Persona, some fourth wall breaking throughout its running time, albeit less of it and slightly more subtle. The most blatant example of this are two occasions where Liv Ullmann’s character speaks directly to the audience, delivering monologues in both the beginning and end of the film. But perhaps the most blatant fourth-wall break is the sound of Bergman and his crew that is overheard during the opening credits. Apparently Bergman had planned to interweave these sorts of elements into the film in a much more significant way but dropped the idea, so one begs the question why he didn’t cut the production crew audio entirely because it really doesn’t serve much of a purpose for the remainder of the film.
The rest of the film mainly delves between reality and dreams, primarily of Johan. It’s not hard to see why people view the character as a stand-in for Bergman as he often included the struggling artist (or in the case of Winter Light a struggling priest) as a form of projection of himself and his own feelings. Even Liv Ullmann herself who was living with Bergman at the time saw through the connection. And oddly enough, this is where I think the film finds its hooks in the horror genre. Johan tries to draw a portrait of Alma but can’t complete it in one sitting, whereas he has already drawn several sketchers or even fully fledged portraits of figments of his own imagination and dreams. It’s almost as if the artist, in Bergman’s eyes, cannot connect with the real world properly and must regress to their inner fantasies and dreams.
All these sequences are captured very effectively, and with a few exceptions it’s mostly hard to tell where the reality stops and the dreams begin to take over. The only exceptions to this would be a silent sequence where Johan recounts a [supposed] encounter with a young boy at some cliffs fishing, which is purposely overexposed. The rest of the film remains consistent in its look, but is definitely an offspring of German expressionism in its use of stark shadows, contrasts between black and white and fluid camerawork by the great Sven Nykvist. A particularly well-shot sequence involves a party the couple are invited to, hosted by Erland Josephson. The couple remain quiet as the remaining guests talk over them, with the camera constantly panning between each of the actors, creating a very hostile feeling of powerlessness, almost as if they’re being drained of their power of speech by the constant chatting of these aristocrats, who appear to take a great interest in Johan particularly.
Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are truly the ones who carry the film, perhaps unsurprisingly, and they both do an excellent job in their respective parts, also unsurprisingly I know. I do still have a bone to pick with Bergman when it comes to the often tiresome Stockholm accents that virtually every one of his actors possesses, but to be fair that’s always been a problem with Swedish films so I shouldn’t put too much blame on the guy. And his films always aim for a heightened and stylized sense of reality and are never meant to be taken literally, so I can forgive him for this one.
So overall, although it’s generally not ranked as favorably as some of his other pictures (like the ones we wrote about for his birthday, due check that out here: https://afistfuloffilm.com/2020/07/14/staff-picks-the-ingenious-ingmar-bergman/), I think Hour of the Wolf is a strong film in the Bergman filmography and one of his most successful in establishing a consistent atmosphere and mood with stylized camerawork, acting and editing. I could even picture myself revisiting this one quite often actually.
It should also be noted that the exteriors to the film was shot at the cliffs and fields of Hovs Hallar, the same location used for the opening scene of The Seventh Seal and not too far from where I live. It would’ve been even cooler if Bergman had shot some material on Hallands Väderö like he planned, because that’s another location I know fairly well and spent some time there. Oh well.