A Bergman film with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann??? You're kidding! Wait - it's also a horror film??? Judge Erick Harper has the details for you.
The hour of the wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear; when ghosts and demons are their most powerful. It is the hour in which reality becomes a mockery of madness, and masks hide behind faces; the hour of all final moments.—from the trailer
The creation of psychological horror requires a filmmaker to harness that emotional state that Freud referred to as the "uncanny." This sense of the uncanny is the product of having one or more key psychological barriers threatened or broken: the barriers between life and death, self and other, reality and unreality. When these boundaries are transgressed, or even approached, some of our most primitive fears and desires awaken.
In Hour of the Wolf, no less an observer of humanity than Ingmar Bergman walks the fence lines of the soul, doing his best to delve into the uncanny and the darkness it can reveal in the human psyche.
Facts of the Case
Artist Johan Borg (Max von Sydow, The Seventh Seal, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Minority Report) takes refuge with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann, The Passion of Anna, Persona, Shame) on a remote, rocky island so that he can pursue his art undisturbed.
He doesn't remain undisturbed for long. There are a few other people on the island, including the dying embers of a once aristocratic family, with a castle and grounds that may once have been magnificent but have since begun to fall into decay. They are really the least of his concerns, though—the real disturbances are the ones that come with him in his own head. Johan is plagued by recurring nightmare visions and stays awake at night, during the hour of the wolf, to avoid them. Even then he is not free, however, for the people at the castle seem to know more about him, more about his past life and present inner turmoil, than strangers should know. It is through their enigmatic presence that Johan's visions seem to finally pass from nightmare to a form of reality during the Hour of the Wolf.
Hour of the Wolf is the only horror film Ingmar Bergman ever made. Bergman is clearly influenced here by German expressionism, with its exaggerated, stylized use of light and shadow and deliberately disorienting camera angles; his penchant for intense, unblinking close-ups compliments this style of shooting well, and adds a sense of the surreal to the already bizarre happenings. The performances of the castle apparitions—by actors such as Erland Josephson, Bertil Anderberg, and Ingrid Thulin—certainly have a definite expressionist, stylized feel to them.
The expressionist sensibility also calls for the dramatic externalization of the internal; this fits the subject matter of the film in two ways. First and most obvious, the expression of Johan's inner turmoil breaks the psychological barriers between self and other and between reality and unreality (and later, between life and death) necessary for Bergman to create true horror. Second, and a bit less obvious on the surface, is Bergman's own expression here of the internal realities of his own life. It may seem a bit too on-the-nose, but is there any doubt that Von Sydow's Johan is a stand-in for the writer/director himself? The character is a troubled, brilliant artist whose creative visions and past both interfere with his relationship with his pregnant wife. It is certainly no coincidence that the wife in question is played by Liv Ullmann, who at the time was herself pregnant with Bergman's child; the demands of Bergman's art and personality had threatened for a while to tear the two of them apart. There is clearly a dark side to the creative impulse, and its obsessions can impair life in the real world, whether for fictitious artist Johan Borg or real-life Ingmar Bergman.
MGM's new Special Edition of Hour of the Wolf provides this film with a nice transfer, acceptable audio, and a load of solid extra content. The image is sharp and clear, with a minimum of digital problems. Either the source print was in excellent condition or there was some careful restoration work done, because the film looks very nice, crisp and clean with a minimum of age-related defects. The audio is a little less clear, with some analog hiss detectable, but it's not bad enough to detract seriously from one's enjoyment. I don't speak much Swedish, but the audio was clear enough that dialogue came through clear and unmuffled, and I could pick out the few words I do know with ease.
There are several special features on this disc, some of which are helpful in understanding this cryptic film a bit better. "The Search for Sanity" is a twenty-six minute featurette about the making of the film, including archival footage of Bergman himself. This featurette includes some insights into the picture, but mostly focuses on anecdotes about its making. In addition to the Bergman interview footage (from about 1970, if memory serves), we get a lot of one-on-one footage from actors Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who relate their personal memories of Bergman and the making of Hour of the Wolf. Ullmann and Josephson also have short interview segments in addition to the featurette. Rounding out the collection are a theatrical trailer, photo galleries, and a commentary track, about which more shortly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A commentary track is, to me, one of the best pieces of extra content a DVD producer can include. However, a bad commentary track is far worse than no commentary track at all. A commentary track should help shed some light on the film itself; for an abstract, impenetrable film such as Hour of the Wolf, I would have greatly appreciated some guidance that would contribute to my understanding of what in the world Bergman was trying to accomplish here. I'll have to look somewhere else, because Bergman biographer Marc Gervais's comments rarely provide any useful information or insights. Once in a while we might get an interesting anecdote or some background information about Bergman, but for the most part he is content to confine his comments to banal, superficial observations about what we can already see on the screen. Maybe I'm asking for too much. Maybe, in the back of my mind, what I really want is a sort of Cliff's Notes; a shortcut to making sense of this challenging, often frustrating film. Maybe I want the commentary track to give me answers that just don't exist. On the other hand, I'd like something a little more substantive than a guy throwing out the words "expressionism" and "film noir" every time a scene is shot in something other than direct sunlight. I'd like something a little more substantive than some random comments about vampires based solely on an actor's physical resemblance to Bela Lugosi. Gervais's comments could have taken advantage of the film's slow pace and sparse dialogue to provide us with a wealth of information; however, he seems to have been lulled by the film's dreamlike pacing, and speaks even less often than the characters do, if such a thing is possible.
Just to be clear, the above rant applies only to the commentary track, and not to Gervais's contributions to "The Search for Sanity."
Some people might find Hour of the Wolf a bit slow-moving, dull, and portentous. I have to admit to falling asleep a number of times while trying to get through it. I also have to admit to being more confused and irritated than scared at Bergman's images. On the other hand, there are people who, after seeing it, have been unable to sleep, and who have had the worst nightmares of their lives. For the most part, though, I'm inclined to say that if, like myself, you are honestly interested in an initiation to Bergman, there are probably better places than this to start.
Not guilty! An intriguing, frustrating film from the Swedish master that is certainly not for everyone. MGM is to be commended for a solid DVD package.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Bergman Biographer Marc Gervais
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