Bright Lights Film Journal

In Love with Liv Who Loves Life: Surviving Ingmar Bergman’s <em>Hour of the Wolf</em>

“If the demons leave, maybe the angels will too”

All happy artists — to subvert Tolstoy’s dictum about families — are different, each in their own way, but all unhappy artists are pretty much the same. Just ask the people who live with them.

Max von Sydow plays the unhappy artist in Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 (U.S. release) film, Hour of the Wolf.1 Liv Ullmann is his accommodating and very stressed-out wife. In the mid to late ’60’s, the creative juices were flowing for Bergman, who rapidly accumulated a body of work featuring the Swedish actress. Like many of his female headliners, Ullmann had become the director’s lover.

Some of their work together, such as the film that preceded Hour of the Wolf, 1967’s Persona, appears experimental, intuitive, and partially improvised. And Hour of the Wolf can behave in the precise Bergman manner that gets some folks’ hackles up: when not staring gape-mouthed into the camera, the two principals seem inexplicably dense and miserable as they lob handfuls of overloaded dialog at each other. With this film, you get the feeling at times that Bergman was flying by the seat of his pants, but Hour of the Wolf, like Persona, is neither slipshod nor deliberately obscure. So what do we have here?

A cautionary tale about the dangers of self-involvement? Maybe — but Bergman also enacts the threat, lurking in any human relationship, of being subsumed by the identity of another — especially if your mate is an obsessed artist in seemingly perpetual mid-career crisis. We see the terror grow, in stages, on Ullmann’s face — that most fluid medium of nuanced emotion. Photographed and cut as a visually elegant horror movie, Hour of the Wolf feels woefully personal.

Personal enough that the film necessarily begs referencing the state of the Ullman/Bergman relationship at the time, which was, well, not good. In one interview offered by MGM as a special feature in their DVD, Liv says that at that point in her life she was “at peace” with the world, while her genius boyfriend was not. The whole angst-ridden trip was not for her, so: splitsville.

Hour of the Wolf begins and ends with Ullmann talking into the camera, and the set-up is simple. After a title card soberly announces a story about the strange disappearance of an artist, Johan Borg, while he and his wife, Alma, sojourned on a barren, windswept island, Alma appears to give her side of the story, and she’s clearly giving an interview, as if to a TV reporter — it’s not one of Bergman’s interior monologues.

Alma is clear-headed, a little sad, and pregnant. In spite of her husband just going “poof,” she announces that she’s going to stick around awhile before returning to the mainland. In her demeanor there’s a quiet acceptance of Johan’s fate. She’s not out there searching for him; she knows he’s really gone. There’s something shaky, however, under Alma’s quiet resolve to just hang around, and it’s clear she’s exhibiting a kind of shock. She looks and acts like a woman who’s needed to leave a man in order to save her sanity — it’s for her own safety, really — and in the core of her being she’s all right with that, but, still, she thinks … what the hell happened? Could I have done something? Perhaps she’s not quite ready to accept the idea that Johan didn’t so much disappear into thin air, or get eaten by vampire ghosts, as just disappear into himself.

The film proper begins with a flashback of the couple being abandoned at the island by a lonely skiff, which plops the two of them and their supplies on a rocky beach and then vanishes. There’s the kind of queasy gloom you get from the beginning of a Poe story as the two of them, dwarfed by huge stone promontories, trudge their supplies via wheelbarrow up a steep crumbling incline.

Bergman provides a few laughing, affectionate moments for Alma and Johan; on a sunny morning full of marital bliss, Johan promises to draw his wife every day, a promise quickly forgotten as a different routine is established. While Alma holds down the domestic fort at the rustic cottage, Johan begins to take his easel on solitary forays into the island’s barren landscape, only to return sour-faced and silent as his wife struggles with hanging the laundry out in a stiff wind. Gamely, Alma runs to greet him but is shut out, ignored, and she becomes a familiar victim: a wife stranded with a husband’s suddenly mysterious temperament. Bergman neatly underscores her predicament with a shot of Ullmann standing stupefied amidst the flapping bed sheets.

Nighttime comes, and Johan resorts to solitary drinking and bouts of insomnia. Alma, no longer dewy-eyed, wonders out loud to a disaffected Johan if it’s true that people who stay together begin to resemble each other, this thought echoing throughout the film, of course, as Alma begins to share hallucinations with her husband.

Or at least some of them. Johan shows Alma a bulging sketchbook filled with Boschian horrors, such as a birdman, carnivorous insect demons, and an old woman whose face comes off with her hat. We see Ullmann’s face bruised by the thought of her husband going mad, yet the next morning she too sees something she ought not to: an old woman in a turn-of-the-century dress and hat (Naima Wifstrand). She has a kindly face, but all of us, including Alma, are wondering: is this the face that comes off with the hat?

Off on his own, Johan finds his solitude constantly invaded by visitors, the reality of which the viewer is never sure. On a pebble-strewn beach, an old girlfriend (Ingrid Thulin) shows up to deliver a warning, that “dreams can become unveiled.” A nervous man in an overcoat, beret, and spectacles (Ulf Johansson), declaring himself the resident “psychiatric curator” of the island, natters at him incessantly until Johan smacks him down and tells him to shut up. Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson), a fey aristocrat who claims to own the island, comes upon Johan painting and invites him and his wife to dinner up at “the castle.”

The social event proves to be the Borgs’ undoing: Johan begins his true descent here and thereafter Alma becomes increasingly isolated. The von Merkenses and their friends prove an unsettling bunch (Josephson’s Baron is especially spooky); as shot by Nykvist, they could be the Northern cousins of the effete Roman aristocrats in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Flashing cultivated witticisms, Bergman’s aristocratic intellectuals may also be a cadre of vampires, a coven of witches, a passel of ghosts, or all three at once.

More to the point, though, the von Merkens et al. are manifestations of Johan’s own self-loathing, and Alma, because she loves him, must be present at her husband’s phantasmagorical inquisition; their intimacy enjoins them at the psychic hip. Like most of his torment in the film, Johan’s persecution by the von Merkenses takes the form of intense teasing, as if Johan’s belligerent inner demons want to grab hold of Johan’s fragile persona and then, in a peevish sort of auto da fé, just pester it to pieces.

You see the same kind of abstruse malignancy running under Ruth Gordon’s smarmy “let’s get to know each other” routine in Rosemary’s Baby, which also appeared in 1968, but Bergman’s miscreants set less a trap than an outright ambush of oblique taunts and barbs. Johan begins to sweat with anxiety and too much wine; when he gets up from the table, he must lean heavily on Alma for support.

One of the hangers-on, Lindhorst (Georg Rydeberg), who has a passing resemblance to Bela Lugosi, is a soft-spoken aesthete with an occult axe to grind with Johan — he, and others, insists on riding Johan by calling him “Sir Artist,” and asking him questions about art and painting without waiting for an answer. Alma, cowed and silent, is pointedly ignored. Why are they picking on my husband? she’s thinking.

After dinner, along with the cigars and cognac, Lindhorst presents a puppet show featuring a scene from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.2 A discussion of the sublimity of the music becomes another taunt thrown at Johan, who, drunk and raw, bursts out with a defense of his identity as an artist. He admits that the self-involved activity has made him a monster of sorts, but he didn’t seek it out, this status of being different, or monstrous. When he splutters to a stop the von Merkenses respond with mock applause and a few patronizing bravos. A dowager steps forward to thrust a rose unceremoniously into Johan’s face. Like the small talk at the table, the rose hides its thorns; one of them cuts Johan’s cheek.

Soon enough the teasing takes aim at Johan’s sex life. Alone with the couple, the Baroness (Gertrud Fridh), like an inexperienced whore, begins to fling carnal innuendos at Johan, archly hinting at her own promiscuous infidelity as a way of digging at a messy, unhappy episode in the artist’s past. When a tour of the castle reaches the master bedroom, it reveals Johan’s portrait of Veronica Vogler, the old girlfriend who had just materialized to Johan on the beach. Knowing all about his relationship with the married woman and the resulting scandal, the Baroness cheerfully blandishes the intimate details in front of the Borgs as if she were chatting about Paris fashions, but this time the mean-spirited roundelay is clearly meant for Alma as well. Part of the plan, it seems, is to separate Alma emotionally from her husband, or to eliminate her altogether.

“They want you for themselves,” says a very upset Alma on the way home, “and it’s harder for them if I’m here.” To her dismay, Johan is silent on the issue and now regards his own disintegration with complacency; he will go quietly. “You are made whole,” he has told Alma. “Your thoughts and emotions are whole. The world needs people like you.” But Johan’s splintering self no longer needs Alma; his chattering demons see her, and her wholeness, as the enemy.

Slyly aware of his devolving condition, Johan appears to enjoy psyching out his wife at this juncture, toying with her fear as he plays portentous mind-games. Max von Sydow, as is his method, underplays the menace ready to pounce on Alma — which is good: there are no Jack Nicholson party games here. The conjugal horror in Hour of the Wolf has nothing of the external threat of the enabling ghosts in Kubrick’s The Shining or the simplistic domestic terror of Charles Boyer’s nutcase in the 1944 MGM thriller Gaslight.

“Nights used to be for sleeping,” he says to Alma with a certain amount of relish, like he’s about to recite their favorite ghost story. Instead, he points to some marks on his neck. “These aren’t from snakebite, like I told you,” and he explains how he got them, out in the field. It’s a horrific tale with a murderous outcome, and in disclosing it to Alma, Johan is like someone with incipient full-blown dementia who calmly seeks verification on a recent hallucination: Did this really happen . . . or not? Shot overexposed by Nykvist, Johan’s narrative is the centerpiece of the film and has an aura of nastiness that you associate with the most insinuating, taboo-breaching of nightmares.

Johan, taking a midday break from painting, is fishing off some rocks at the shore when a small, nearly naked prepubescent boy appears. At the beginning he’s merely poking around, getting annoyingly close to Johan’s painting gear, being a pest. But Johan loses his cool when the boy goes to a far rock and stretches out in a sexually provocative pose, arching his back — Johan runs over to him and, because the sequence is silent, you don’t hear what he screams at the child as he begins to shake him. When the boy retaliates by jumping on Johan’s back and biting him in the neck, Johan throws him to the ground and beats him to death with a rock. Johan takes the limp body and submerges him in a deep tidal pool.

The images are disturbing on a primal level and resist being nailed down. Whether the boy is the imp of id, an inverse incubus, or a vision of regressive sexuality, he threatens the survival of Johan’s psyche. Of course the killing doesn’t resolve the struggle; the boy’s bloody skull has a way of floating back up from the depths.3

Alma’s truly lost him now. When Johan tries to kill her and nearly succeeds, Alma hides out, and Johan runs headlong into the arms of his demons, much like Malcolm Lowry’s Geoffry Firmin does in the novel Under the Volcano. It’s a simple lure this time, and the bait is Veronica Vogler, who supposedly waits for her former lover up at the castle.

“I want you to know. She’s my mistress,” says a sepulchral Baron von Merken as he guides Johan to Vogler. Johan turns back and watches the Baron slowly walk up a wall, transverse the ceiling, and then hang there, weeping. “It’s just my jealousy,” he tells Johan.

On his way to Veronica, Johan meets the Woman with the Hat, who obligingly performs her trick for him, but it’s far from grisly. The face, after she tears it off with the hat, is a silly latex mask that rests limply on the table. From her skinless visage, the woman plucks an eye and plunks it like an olive into a cocktail glass. Johan seems a little disappointed with the clownish aspects of her act.

There’s a tonal shift in these scenes; Bergman gives them an air of black comedy that, once established, makes you question the tenor of what’s preceded them. Is Bergman messing with our heads? More likely, he wants to steer clear of Grand Guignol. Unmasking the secrets of a man’s unconscious, it turns out, is more like a tedious burlesque than a sixties fright fest directed by Roger Corman. Aren’t all clowns symbols of self-loathing? Johan must take a final pratfall before the “Cannibals” gobble him up.4

First, Lindhorst shows up to give the artist a makeover in anticipation of his rendezvous. After Johan is powdered, rouged and touched up with lipstick and eye makeup, then given a long silken dressing gown to wear, he looks like — what — a man in drag, a Pierrot clown, an eighteenth-century voluptuary? In a dimly lit stone chamber, Johan struggles to make love to a naked corpse, who comes to life only to laugh in his face. Limp with failure, Johan swings around — lipstick smudged, eyeliner running — to confront a peanut gallery full of his sadistic hobgoblins, screaming with laughter.

It’s the ultimate ridicule, apparently — Alma finds him nearly comatose in the woods — but once again he escapes from the safety of her embrace. She sees him last encircled by his tormentors, who slash and peck at him. The Birdman is Lindhorst, who, in spite of his love for Mozart’s gentle birdman, Papageno, has a very sharp beak and a predatory disposition.5

Her tale finished, Alma returns to face the camera and deliver a forlorn postscript, musing that perhaps it would have been better if she hadn’t loved Johan so much; from a safer distance she could’ve protected him . . . couldn’t she? It’s Bergman’s perennial musing, too: can people really do much good for each other?

It’s a bitter question that often receives a bitter answer, but in this film, Bergman’s treatment of Ullmann’s character is free from such hard-edged pessimism and is rather gallant.6 After all, it’s the physicality of Liv Ullmann’s face that grounds the picture — never mind the depths of her eyes: even the light gathering along the blond wisp of an eyebrow tells us that, for Alma, nights are for sleeping, days for living. While her husband chases his dick all the way to psychic oblivion, Alma is keyed into survival — she carries life within her — and in the end she doesn’t want to resemble her mate any more than Liv Ullmann wanted to resemble Ingmar Bergman.

In a sort of self-laceration, Bergman’s film seems to mock the narcissistic inner life of creative men while paying homage to the emotional wholesomeness of women — women like his erstwhile girlfriend, Ullmann. Briefly stated: man in love with death; woman in love with life. Liv constantly sees possibility and continuance, but Bergman is one of those death-haunted artists, like Mahler or Lowry, and that’s hell on partnerships. But what can you do? I can hear Bergman say on one of his better days.If the demons leave, maybe the angels will, too. . . .

  1. As part of their Ingmar Bergman Collection, MGM premiered Hour of the Wolf as a DVD in 2004. Even before its street date, a legion of Bergman acolytes made the release their cause célèbre by creating a furor on the Internet over a gaffe on MGM’s part: on the DVDs, all five films were formatted in a widescreen ratio of 1.66:1, whereas three of them (Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame) had originally been issued in 1.33:1 (although it was possible that these three had been shown in the U.S. at the wider ratio). Remarkably, MGM responded to the online clamor and reissued the entire set with the three films corrected. []
  2. The opera is a favorite of Bergman’s; he made it into a film in the mid-seventies. []
  3. Bergman links strange young boys and sexuality in other films, like The Silence (1963) and Fanny and Alexander (1983). In the latter, the very young Alexander has an implicit sexual encounter with an androgynous mystic of the Cabal. []
  4. Bergman’s original title for Hour of the Wolf was The Cannibals. []
  5. Johan may disappear in this movie, but he seems to pop up nearly twenty years later as Barbara Hershey’s humorless downer of a boyfriend, a middle-aged painter played by von Sydow, in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). []
  6. Ullmann plays another strong, life-affirming woman in Bergman’s next film, Shame (1969). Von Sydow is back as Ullmann’s husband, a sensitive musician who buckles under the terrors of wartime and becomes a coward and then a killer. Ullmann can’t save him this time, either. []