“You see what you want to see,” says one of the demons to the protagonist near the climax, as inevitably someone does in most of Bergman’s amazing films. In this case, Max von Sydow, an artist, is about to encounter the ghost of the lover he cannot forget to the glee of the characters in the castle, the demons who constantly erode the remnants of his sanity. At this point Liv Ullmann, as his long suffering wife, is either dead by his hand or is simply no longer part of the hallucination that constantly overlays reality to the point the audience is never certain where one ends and the other begins.
Liv Ullmann speaking to the camera frames the tale. Her husband has vanished, she is broke, pregnant and now shares her husband’s dark visions.
During the hour of the wolf—that hour just before dawn (as the artist explains to his wife as they both await sunrise so that he can finally sleep)--more people die, more children are born than any other hour. He lights match after match in the darkness, struggling to remain beyond the reach of his demons. But they appear to him during the day instead—as a precocious child who bites him, an annoying man who follows him blathering endlessly, a lover who he cannot forget who will not let him go.
He gives these beings names, sketches them, shows the sketches to his wife (but not the audience,) and she begins encountering them. One tells her where to find his diary. She does, reads it and is soon immersed within his self destructive spiral.
They summer on a small island, in total isolation, without electricity or running water. The artist struggles to draw and paint on the ragged cliffs while his wife is relegated to domestic chores. Their evening conversations are either his monologues/confessions or her mundane accounting of her life with him which as often as not puts him to sleep. The odious collection of self absorbed souls living in the “castle” on the other side of the island are determined to draw the artist and his wife into their decadent lives. The camera moving from face to face at a dinner party while the unfinished caustic statements each of them spews to anyone willing to listen is one of the most chilling scenes in any film.
Perhaps the best film maker of all time, Bergman’s films are often icy portraits of people in crisis, of what truly drives human relationships, and the oddly resilient fragility of the human psyche. HOUR OF THE WOLF is one of his most surreal efforts, shot in black and white, often going to high contrast (no shades of grey) during von Sydow’s psychotic episodes. It was released in 1968 and stands the test of time remarkably well. The film is filled with all manner of unforgettable images, from an old woman deconstructing her own face (without CGI,) to a man walking across the floor, up a wall and over the ceiling, to the collection of demons (who are also, for the most part, the other characters in the film) gathered to watch him embrace the memory of his lover, laid out as a corpse.
Ullmann and von Sydow were Bergman’s favorite actors, appearing together in many of his best efforts. His films, for the most part, feel like family affairs, with cast and crew having worked (and played) with him many times before. The dependable Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, as always, is absolutely perfect.
Begrman intends his audience question how much of what they perceive is objectively real and how much is pure subjectivity. He drives home the point that we are inevitably the architects of our own undoing. He explores our sensuality and how these needs at times will not only override all else, but will obscure the boundaries of reality. And he captures the absolute isolation of the human condition while illustrating Sartre’s maxim, “hell is other people.”
Not for the faint of heart nor the dense of mind.
Available from your local library or in various versions from Amazon.com.
© Paul L. Bates 2013