Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source MGM DVD
Like Persona, Hour of the Wolf is a film about conflicts that take place both between characters and within an individual. The protagonist is Johan Borg, an artist who has retreated with his wife to a secluded island in the Baltic Sea, to take refuge from the pressures of society in a manner similar to Elisabet Vogler’s emotional self-exile in the earlier film. But just as Elisabet finds her isolation to be untenable and illusory at the end of Persona, so Johan discovers that escape from the outside world is impossible. His “inner demons” become quite literal: predatory creatures in (mostly) human form that serve as manifestations of his weaknesses, his neuroses, and of his deteriorating relationship with Alma, his wife.
Ingmar Bergman’s film unfolds like a horror movie. It begins with Alma’s recollections and Johan’s diary entries, which chart his descent into madness, and culminates in a frightening denouement that is surely the most boldly surreal episode in any of Bergman’s films. In this way, Hour of the Wolf bears strong resemblances to his other supernatural thriller, 1958’s The Magician, in which Bergman also employs horror movie conventions (claps of thunder, chiaroscuro lighting, and spooky music) to explore the soul’s darkest fears and fantasies. Both films concern society’s victimization of the artist, and here, as in the previous film, Max von Sydow suffers the humiliations of a cadre of judges that represent the various institutions and forces of the social order. Erland Josephson again portrays an insidious count whose geniality masks contempt, and Naima Wifstrand, Bergman’s favorite creepy old lady, reprises her role as a witch, although here she is on the side of the predators, not of the artist. (Interestingly, this witch also has the ability to remove her face, a talent that von Sydow, as Dr. Vogler, demonstrates in The Magician. This further illuminates Bergman’s motifs of masks, lies, and role-playing that are also of concern in Persona and The Passion of Anna.)
Johan’s internal conflicts, and the demons that represent them, manifest themselves, so that Alma also becomes their victim. As Alma speculates later in the film, it is her close relationship with Johan, the fact that she has come to “think like him and see like him,” that causes her to become subject to his “cannibals.” Here, as in Persona, personalities merge, although unlike her namesake, Alma does not recoil from this possibility. Indeed, she embraces it: “I hope that we will get so old that we think each other’s thoughts and we get little, dried-up, identical wrinkled faces.” This film’s Alma is a source of unconditional love that vows to resist the cannibals” divisive forces, to stay closely united with Johan even as he becomes progressively more isolated.
Again, this film is as much about the conflict between Johan and Alma as it is about struggles against inner demons. As the violence of the film’s ending demonstrates, Alma’s dedication to her close relationship with Johan precipitates his final submission to his demons. Johan’s fears and frustrations, his guilty fantasies of past sexual affairs, and his debilitating paranoia become more than he can share with Alma, and so their life together becomes unsustainable. Bergman thus asserts the impossible nature of relationships, the ultimate inability of two people to live together without destroying one another. Throughout Bergman’s films of the 1960s, this pessimistic attitude toward relationships will be reasserted (notably in The Passion of Anna), and it is not until 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage that Bergman will aver a very provisional form of optimism.
For the moment, however, Hour of the Wolf leaves us in much the same position as Persona did: in a state of limbo with nowhere to go. Alma does not resignedly affirm “Nothing” at the end of this film, but rather waits hopelessly for her husband, who has vanished without a trace. At the close of the film, even her last sentence remains unfinished.