Among the movies in his 45-film-plus oeuvre, legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman‘s Hour of the Wolf stands out of the pack as his lone work in horror. Despite the campy images potentially conjured by its title, the film is no less psychologically probing than Persona or the Faith trilogy. During Hour of the Wolf, the metamorphosis that takes place is not that of the body, but of the mind, and of the movies themselves. In Bergman’s 1968 film, painter Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) enjoy a quiet life on the island of Baltrum. However, Borg beings to have nightmares, and shares sketches of the ghoulish characters from his dreams with his wife. In sympathizing with her husband, Alma begins to be plagued by the very same demons, who inform her that such evil is not restricted to fantasy. Upon reading her husband’s diary and hearing his confessions, Alma unearths twisted memories about the man she thought she knew.
Beyond the standard thrills and chills of a run-of-the-mill Halloween flick, Hour of the Wolf howls with the horror felt by tortured artists. The film is inspired by Bergman’s own nightmares and his own experience as a creative. Though the cinematic equivalent of a surrealistic, beguiling painting, Hour of the Wolf is framed by lucid, analytical metafiction. Sounds of preparing for the film are heard in the blank background of the opening credits. The movie begins and ends with an introduction by Alma to what would otherwise be an unbelievable story. Her earnest address to the camera invites audiences into the “reality” of the film. Accordingly, the flashback begins realistically enough. Borg passes an idyllic and isolated existence with his wife as muse, the sunlit island as plain and spare as a blank sheet of paper. It is only until the title credit of the movie appears approximately midway through the film that the first dab of paint taints the canvas, that the Hour of the Wolf truly begins.
The plot thickens when the artist’s muse seeks out his demons. As in Persona, the very efforts to empathize with another person become menacingly close and confusing. While many movies (David Fincher’s Zodiac, for instance) and even video games derive their scare factor from keeping figures hidden mysteriously in the background, Bergman blocks the film with the actors in the foreground. Borg broods by the camera, face swathed in shadow as he bows his head in a suspiciously penitent gesture as he recollects his nightmares. When Alma pores over his sketches of monsters, the illustrations are left unseen with the back of the sketchpad to the camera. With his reticent blocking, Bergman suggests that even those closest to us are an enigma, a fact more unsettling than the obvious unknown of distant matters. And when Alma stares at her husband’s painting of a former lover, her direct gaze at the camera cuts away without a reverse shot. The audience cannot see the subject of the portrait, but are in the position of the portrait themselves. The camera then cuts to a long shot where Alma’s reflection is framed by a mirror, captured in her very viewing of an artwork—much like the audience itself. Art is an outlet to another’s soul, both at once unapproachable and inescapable.
This unapproachibility transforms into imminent danger when Bergman uses whip pans and zoom-ins upon close-ups. Viewers are subject to the gaze of party-goers at a castle hosted by Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson) in a first-person point-of-view long take. The camera is particularly dizzying during the banquet as it hops from one guest’s close-up to that of another. The inescapability of the camera’s lens expresses the artist’s anxiety in being scrutinized by high society. In a scene that evokes the Lady in the Radiator in Lynch’s Eraserhead, the character Lindhorst (Georg Rydeberg) is puppeteer of a miniature opera within the film, theater director Bergman’s favorite: The Magic Flute by Mozart. A candle in the foreground sets the loins of a live actor on fire as Lindhorst leers intrusively over the artist’s work. Later in the film when Borg recalls his salacious public scandal, he cries out that “the mirror shatters,” that the gaze of society upon his art is tantamount to seven years of bad luck.
As evinced by the scene of Alma in the mirror and this vaguely autobiographical film’s own frame story, art and its subjects-artist and audience alike-are under scrutiny. We have seen the illustrations on the sketchpad after all: the visions of the artist are the film itself, the motley characters that expose and reflect the darkest aspects of society. The mirror shatters, but this very act of destruction is itself creative, or at least when captured on film. As in Swedish lore, the hour of the wolf is when the most people die, the most babies are born, and the most nightmares come. During the hour and twenty minutes of the film, demons become muses, death joins birth and resurrection, and nightmares bring visions.
With the mirror broken, all that is left is the frame story. At the end of the film, Alma gives the audience the very same intense gaze she gave her lover, his critics, and his artwork. She leaves us with a final question: does the emotion and trauma of an artist imprint itself on viewers—do we find ourselves reflected in his work? The haunting impact of Bergman’s movie will go to show us.