In The Hour of the Wolf (1968), Ingmar Bergman (with a debatably poignant cynicism) draws the viewer into the mad mind of artist Johan Borg (Max von Sydow). As with many Bergman films, the plot itself is fairly straightforward: Borg, with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann), vacation on a remote Swedish island while he slowly loses his grip on reality.
Though in the next post I intend to shed some light on contextual/biographical details, as well as look at the film’s relationship to the horror genre, for now I shall limit myself to analyzing this film in relation to our theory of communication. From The Seventh Seal through Autumn Sonata and now to The Hour of the Wolf, we at Cinema-Worcester have chosen these films in this particular order for the ways they highlight the multitude of ways in which humans communicate: first with transcendence or metaphysics (truth as a concept, be it God or a certain philosophy); second with our parents and children--arguably the most complicated and intimate of relationships--third, with ourselves--what all other forms of communication rely upon.
In this post, I shall mostly find a foundation for my argument in analyzing its formal reflexivity--here referring to a work of art which refers back to itself. By doing this, I am implicitly and intentionally making the film out to be a subject that can refer to itself--analogous to a person such as myself, speaking the word: “myself”. This has not been an uncommon strategy for 20th century artists. Notably, artists like playwright Bertolt Brecht and the French New Wave filmmakers (e.g. Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, François Truffaut) tend to be showered with praise for their self-reflexive works. However, Lawrence Smith recalls Bergman’s opinion on this supposed “new” invention of reflexivity:
“When a critic remarks that the French New Wave played with such ‘distancing’ strategies and that they were considered ‘something new and shocking,’ Bergman appropriately remarks, ‘But it’s as old as the hills, don’t you realize that? In the theatre! The author turns directly to his audience.’”
An appropriate question to be asked here, then would be: what is the function of such “turns to his audience”? This is where we find Bergman to be at some of his most philosophically relevant. The film opens with a note from “the director” which tells the viewer that the film is based on Alma’s diary; during the opening credits, the sounds of a film set and the director’s voice (Bergman himself) exclaims: “Camera! Action!”; the film is bookended with Alma’s interviews; and half way through the film the title-card appears, practically functioning as an intermission. Of course these are all quite obvious examples, but how do they imply philosophical ideas?
It seems plausible that for a film about an artist losing control of his sanity and his ability to distinguish between the real and the unreal, by continually “turning to his audience” in such ways, Bergman seems to couple Borg’s inability to understand his reality with our own understanding of the film, and by extension, our reality as a whole. In other words, by means of structure, style, and form, the film--as a subject--is explicating an analogous experience of losing touch with reality and coherence. Thus, with this fictional-documentary premise, Bergman builds his house on sand, if you will.
It thus becomes more and more clear for the viewer that Bergman self-consciously subverts the coherence and logic of traditional, narrative driven filmmaking, in favor of the oneiric, the logic of the subconscious, the logic of the dream. Though certainly outside the realm of by-the-book, French or Czech Surrealism, Bergman uses surrealist interests (namely, the psychology of the subconscious, sexuality, shame/humiliation) to pierce through superficial horror tropes that horrify viscerally--a la David Lynch and Nicolas Roeg.
Considering this is a film fueled by anxiety and the unconscious life, it is not shocking that Bergman (who was ever anxious about social, professional, and metaphysical ideas) is the author of this film. It is birthed from repression, unconscious desires, fears, motivations, and humiliation.
In an interview in 1968 (the year the film was released), Bergman is quoted as saying:
I think it’s terribly important that art exposes humiliation, that art shows how human beings humiliate each other, because humiliation is one of the most dreadful companions of humanity, and our whole social system is based to an enormous extent on humiliation.
As a result, the film ends up a monument to humiliation. It seems a playground for psychoanalytic discussions surrounding the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety, fears of sexual inadequacy in relation to the ‘father’, etc. Though I do not intend to dive into any one of these discussions at the present moment, this deep and disturbed subconscious realm is the one we experience in The Hour of the Wolf.
It has been noted, sometimes as a critique, that Max Von Sydow became a kind of “mouthpiece” for Bergman. But the transparently reflexive aspect of the artistic meditation of this film reminds the viewer how honest Bergman ostensibly attempted to be. Think of Johan’s interaction with Corinne:
C: “Does our artist not agree?”
J: “Forgive me. I call myself an artist for lack of a better name.”
C: “There speaks an artist!”
The neurosis and anxiety is visceral and comic, while at the same time brutal. Johan Borg as Bergman’s nightmare-based alter ego, arises from anxious feelings of failure, of pretension, of a lack of self-awareness, and ultimately of losing the ability to differentiate between the real and the non-real. Thus when Johan finally exits “reality” and says: “The glass is shattered, but what do the splinters reflect? Can you tell me that?” we are made aware of the fact that we will not, nor can we understand. This is dream logic. Actually, it is more than that, the blood of this film seems to be that of Bergman’s own subconscious. These last sequences play out like an existential crisis inspired fever-dream where ‘demons’ walk on walls, faces are removed like a mask, and ostensibly dead-ex-lovers return to life in order to subject Borg to sexual humiliation.
Another connection to dream logic is Bergman’s surreal blurring of the subject. There is the legitimate question of who is the protagonist in this film? It begins with Bergman telling of Alma’s diary and his use of this diary, could it be him as distanced documentarian? Could it be Alma? She is our narrator, the author of the diary inspiring the film, and it is through her perspective that we experience the events presented. Or could it be Johan, who seems to be the main character, the character with which the film seems to want us to identify with? The blurring of the subject of this film creates a tension, a confusion, a formal dissolution of the identity of the work of art. Once again, it seems plausible that a film ostensibly about a man’s losing his grip on reality, that the formal elements of the film would dissolve not just his identity, but also the identity of the characters, and Film as a whole.
The formal elements of the film additionally highlight Bergman’s uninterest in a clear and coherent narrative when it ends mid-sentence: “So many questions. Sometimes I don’t know which way to turn, and I become quite...” Immediately, one feels the deep sleep of cinematic spectatorship, forced to immediately ask: “wait...what just happened?” It is as if finishing the film itself is waking from a nightmare.
So how does this fit into our “Communicating Bergman” series? If Bergman’s life work resulted in expression, deconstruction, and rebuilding, then this could perhaps be the depths of the deconstruction phase. In The Seventh Seal he challenges the way in which we attempt to communicate with truth via a philosophy or worldview; in Autumn Sonata he undermines the way in which language is distorted by one’s ignorance of self which undermines one’s ability to contact another, similarly ignorant, self. Here, with The Hour of the Wolf, we find Bergman narrowing his focus to the identity of a subject by means of the subconscious. If the subconscious has as much power as it does in this film, then it is worth asking to what extent is self-awareness even possible? If it is, then how does one develop, and if it is not, then it seems to be quite an epistemically pessimistic treatise proclaiming our inability to understand the world and our reality at all.