“The hour of the wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is the deepest, when nightmares feel most real. It is the hour when the demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”
This film seen by itself can be a thought provoking experience: one with the potential to question the role and challenges of an artist, the role of the subconscious, the difficulty of accepting and even wanting to be loved and understood, the impact of one’s choices upon others, etc. However, despite one’s potential disagreement with his ostensible pessimism, it may be helpful to contextualize this film for Bergman so as to see it as part of his journey to find humanism…
For his whole life, Ingmar Bergman was plagued by religious doubt, fear of death, and search for meaning. This popped up every once in a while in his early films of the 40’s and early 50’s, then came to the forefront in the late 50’s in films such as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring. In the early 60’s with his so-called Faith Trilogy--Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence--he took these questions head on, eventually leaving the religious problems to the wayside and adopting a fearful but stern acceptance of the incomprehensibility of human relationships, of metaphysical context, and of meaning itself. In 1965 he completed what many have proclaimed to be Bergman’s masterpiece Persona. This film goes even further than The Silence would two years earlier: reflexively undermining meaning, the medium of film, and language itself.
This was the gestation period for The Hour of the Wolf.
Originally titled The Cannibals, Bergman began writing a few years previous, but due to an illness which would inspire him to write Persona, it was pushed to the side. Then, he mentions, “I sat in the studio, telling the actors how I’d hit on the idea for the film: about how a woman had handed me a diary--Johan Borg’s diary--and how afterword I’d got her to tell me, into a tape recorder, about their life together.”
Now settled on his darling island of Faro (where he both filmed and lived for much of the end of his life), Bergman devoted himself to this rewrite in 1966. Isolated on this island, he so intensely devoted himself to this project that he would later say that, “The demons would come to me and wake me up, and they would stand there and talk to me.”
Though a more in depth study of Bergman’s connection with and use of the horror genre would certainly be of interest, due to the scope of this post I shall confine myself to the apparent function of horror, as it relates to Bergman and his purposes.
I shall begin with the man himself: Ingmar. He weaves a real experience of being locked in a closet as a punishment during his childhood into Johan’s character. Roughly half way through the film, Johan speaks of this traumatic childhood event:
“It was some sort of punishment, you see. They threw me in the closet and shut the door. It got dark and quiet. I became terribly frightened, I kicked and I pounded, because they had told me that a little person lived in that closet. And he could gnaw the toes off of naughty children….I swung my fists wildly all around me. To defend myself against that little creature. And the entire time I screamed in horror and asked for forgiveness. Finally the door opened and I could step out… into the daylight.
My father said: ‘Mother tells me that you beg for forgiveness.’
And I said, ‘Yes, I beg so much for forgiveness.’
‘Prepare the couch then’, he said….
Father asked, ‘How many strokes do you deserve?’
And I said, ‘As many strokes as possible.’
And he struck me with the cane, pretty hard, but not unbearable. When the punishment was over I turned towards Mother and asked, ‘Can Mother forgive me now?’
And she cried, and said, ‘Of course I forgive you.’
Then she offered me her hand and I kissed it.”
It is here that I wish to offer up the idea that Bergman’s interest in horror is ostensibly tied to his own personal experience with shame, humiliation, and existential dread. This is perhaps what Robin Wood is alluding to when he explains: “(B)y drawing on a popular tradition Bergman to a great extent depersonalizes the horrors, at the same time completely realizing the implicit relationship between the traditional horror figures and the psychological terrors for which they deputize.”
This is precisely what I had mentioned in my previous post when Bergman said that he thinks it is “terribly important that art exposes humiliation”. This is horror at its most classic: vampire turned into poetic metaphor: to represent personal, blood-sucking demons which dominate and destroy the self. The coupling of horror and shame is of great importance for Bergman--“I screamed in horror and asked for forgiveness”--for, due to his upbringing, it is causally connected with repentance. Especially for Bergman, this is a destructively circular style of development: do something wrong, get punished, feel shame, get ‘better’, shame continues, spirals to more ‘wrongdoing’, get punished, feel greater shame…
Notice, as well, how the locus for this shame and humiliation for Johan--and by extension for Ingmar--is found in childhood. In his description of what the ‘hour of the wolf’ is, Johan ends by tying together demons and birth: “It is the hour when the demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.” Implicit within this coupling is perhaps one of Bergman’s most cynical assertions: that our demons--or at least those from childhood--of shame and humiliation are entirely out of our control. At best, they are in the hands of parents, but at worst, it is an almost inescapable and deterministic fact. If these ‘demons’ which tie concepts of identity, the self, worth, shame, humiliation, purpose, and connection are all formed before we can even understand them, then what hope do we have for overcoming them?
Shame. Humiliation. This is Bergman’s horror. These demons, these vampires were a true, deep, personal horror that Bergman lived his life trying to expiate. A result of the reflexive strategies of the film, the film bleeds out into the ‘real’ world, begging, challenging, and attempting to connect with the deep, subconscious world of the viewer.
Johan may be lost, but perhaps…
Perhaps we, along with Bergman, can find hope and consolation in the nebulous contact found between artist and audience.