Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Hour of the Wolf

When the Hour Is Nigh

Ingmar Bergman's 1968 The Hour of the Wolf [Vargtimmen] begins under the opening credits with the sound of film-set carpentry, and snatches of the director's voice providing suggestions to the crew, and thus links to the 'reveal' of the production in the closing moments of Persona. A certain logic links the two films, both the most prominently 'vampiric' works in Bergman's œuvre; one person sucks the life out of another. In the case of Persona, it's a single woman split into two, gorging off herself in the midst of breakdown. With The Hour of the Wolf it's an artist Johan Berg (Max von Sydow) who's gone emotionally silent toward and increasingly passive-aggressive against his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann).

A pre-credits pair of title cards explain that Johan has disappeared and has left his diary behind, and it is 'this' which the film is based upon. Alma takes a seat at a picnic table in the opening moments and relates to-camera the strange story of his absence. "I've given you the diary." She has a baby due in the month (of which Johan was aware). Despite Johan's being a renowned artist, Alma tells that every now and then she takes a job at a market on the mainland to make ends meet.

We flash back now to the main action of the film, some months prior to the prologue, to the couple's arrival on the island (Fårö? — not literally in this film, but in the two that bookend it) — so many Bergmans since The Seventh Seal kick off with an arrival on a shore, a primordial invocation, a tabula rasa. Once the couple is settled in after unloading their items from the mainland and has made a home of the cottage, Johan and Alma share a quiet interlude in the back of the property. He sketches Alma. This might be Johan's final happy moment. Ullmann lets bare her shoulders, the light is perfect, she looks like a pre-Raphaelite subject.

Moments later in film-time Johan counts down the minutes from his pocket-watch to share with Alma what duration (and by extension, the pain of successive moments) in the world means: terror in silent time. Shortly after, Alma will be visited by a ghost who tells her that within Johan's satchel stashed beneath the bedframe she'll find his diary ("dagbok" emblazoned in black marker across the cover in Bergman's handwriting)... Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson, in his first significant Bergman role) invites Johan and Alma to a dinner at his castle... But Alma's found Johan's diary and it goes...

Interlude: Excerpt from a 1968 Swedish television interview with Ingmar Bergman, conducted by Nils Petter Sundgren, as cited in the book that accompanies Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema Blu-ray boxset: "When a tooth aches, you are constantly touching it with your tongue. If you have got a wound, you are constantly aware of it. It's also a want of having contact. I experience my pictures very much as a want of contact. I seek other people to talk to through my pictures, and there is, perhaps, some kind of idea that if I talk and tell them about my wounds, tensions, and problems, other people might recognize something in that, something of their own, and it may then have a relieving effect on other people. [...] I think it's terribly important that art exposes humiliation, that art shows how human beings humiliate one another, because humiliation is one of the most ghastly companions of humanity, and our whole system, our whole social system, is based to an enormous extent on humiliations."

Writes the Sydney critic Sarinah Masukor, "His murder of the boy, for example, could be read as a vision or as a memory, an indeterminacy effected by the image itself."

The diary goes...

1. A woman (Ingrid Thulin) approached Johan on the shore. She stands from kneeling and comes close to him — the first zoom-in in Bergman? This is Veronika (Veronica?) Vogler.

2. Chased by a critic-sycophant, Heerbrand (Ulf Johansson), school counselor, Johan smacks him to the ground.

Johan has time only for his painting. He can't even review Alma's careful accounting, of which she's clearly proud, when she discusses the bills and household economy. 

At the dinner-party, Baron von Merkens relates how he once purchased a painting from a favorite artist, then invited him over to witness the prank of his work having been hung upside-down.

Did Alma have a stage career? Watch her face during the revelation of the (live) puppet-theater ("the Living Theater"?). (cf. Persona). The audience looks on like the members of the same public a few years later in Bergman's brilliant The Magic Flute.

Late night / early morning with an outdoor walk. cf. Fellini's La dolce vita and Antonioni's La notte.

Now appears the intertitle "VARGTIMMEN" or "THE HOUR OF THE WOLF". As though it weren't before...

A few people make a big deal that Johan's break results from his 3. snakebite scenario while fishing, when the angry half-dressed lad shot in high-contrast leaps onto his neck and bites like a viper before Johan smashes him against the rock and then with a rock to the skull, multiple times. Real or not real? As Alma (and bear in mind the other Vogler are names repeated from Persona) pronounces in the final words of the film: "Sometimes you don't know up from down, and you go completely..." 


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