Early on in Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film Hour of the Wolf, painter Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) urges his pregnant wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), to pose for him so that he can sketch her. He instructs her on how she should sit, how to arrange the robe she’s wearing, what to do with her hair. “If I patiently drew you, day after day…” he says as the scene fades to black. The artist and his muse — but their roles undergo something like a reversal once Johan vanishes and Alma is left to try to make sense of what happened, to share her perspective on the man with whom she lived for seven years. Perhaps she didn’t know him as well as she thought; perhaps, in a strange sense, she knew him too well.
The bulk of Hour of the Wolf depicts the events leading up to Johan’s disappearance, beginning with the couple’s arrival on the island of Baltrum earlier that year. It’s a harsh environment — rocky, windy, austere, isolated — but it’s home to the couple, who are happy to return there after spending the colder months on the mainland. In fact, as far as Johan is concerned, the isolation is one of its chief assets. “We were going to be completely alone. He didn’t want to see another human being here,” Alma says in one of the interviews that bookend the film. Then she clarifies: “He was scared.” Before long, both husband and wife begin to encounter other people, unsettling people who seem to have sprung to life from the former’s artwork, from his past or from the depths of his psyche, and the haunted, tormented Johan moves ever closer to the brink of madness.
The structure of the film raises some questions. A written foreword would appear to present it as a dramatization of or investigation into a true story (which isn’t the case):
“A few years ago, the painter Johan Borg disappeared without a trace from his home on Baltrum in the Frisian Islands. His wife, Alma, subsequently left me Johan’s diary, which she had found among his papers. It is this diary along with Alma’s verbal account that make up the basis for this film.”
As mentioned above, most of the film takes place in the period preceding Johan’s disappearance, though it begins and ends with interviews with Alma as she reflects on what happened. Are the scenes in between meant to be reenactments, with Alma playing herself? Is an actress playing Alma in both the central portion of the film and the interviews? How accurate are the scenes with Johan in which Alma isn’t present? Are they, even if rooted in fact, largely the products of someone’s imagination — whether her own or the filmmaker’s, or perhaps a combination thereof? Whatever the case, it would seem that — by necessity, especially in light of his absence — Johan’s experiences have been filtered through other people’s interpretations.
That’s fitting, really, considering his line of work; it’s essentially what happens to his paintings once they’re exposed to outside eyes. They come to belong to others, and not merely in the material sense. When the Borgs dine with a baron (Erland Josephson) and his wife (Gertrud Fridh) at their castle on the island, the latter shows them that one of Johan’s paintings, a portrait of a woman, hangs on the wall opposite her bed. “I can see it every morning and night. It’s become part of my lonely life. I love her,” she tells them. This isn’t just any portrait: its subject is one Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin), with whom Johan had a long, turbulent, scandalous affair prior to his marriage. To Alma, the baroness adds, “I have at least bought a fairly significant piece of your husband,” as if, through his works, the artist himself is also the property of his patrons, his admirers and even the general public.
At the dinner party at the castle, Johan finds himself making a speech about his position: “Forgive me. I call myself artist for lack of a better term. In my creativity nothing is self-evident, except the compulsion to carry on. Through no intent of my own, I have been singled out as something special, a five-legged calf, a monster. I never strove for that distinction, nor do I strive to keep it. But by all means, I have felt megalomania brush across my brow. But I believe myself to be immune. I need only for a moment consider the insignificance of art in the human world to be brought back down to earth. However, that doesn’t inhibit the compulsion.” It’s hard not to suspect that the character is speaking for Bergman, by this time an international celebrity, and one whose art and personal life were inextricably entwined — to the point where the unborn child that Alma is carrying is actually his and Ullmann’s unborn child. (Linn Ullmann, now a writer, would go on to appear in her father’s Cries & Whispers and Autumn Sonata and would also play Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow’s daughter in Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land.)
The pregnancy also serves a symbolic purpose within the film. For one thing, it emphasizes Alma’s maternal, nurturing side (as does her name, which another guest at the castle describes as “unusual and beautiful”). Whereas Johan’s relationship with Veronica Vogler was passionate and tumultuous, rife with fighting and jealousy, his relationship with Alma is gently affectionate, calm and low-key; she notes in the opening interview that he liked the fact that she was quiet. “We were happy,” she says when talking about their arrival on the island. Isolated from the rest of the world, they’re all in all to each other — or at least that’s how things are supposed to be. As Johan grows increasingly disturbed, Alma comes to fear that external forces are conspiring to tear them apart, and she becomes determined to protect him. “I can see something is going to happen, something evil. I don’t know what to call it. But if you think I’m going to run away — I’m not going to run away, no matter how frightened I am. And one more thing. They want to separate us. They want you for themselves,” she tells him in despair on the night of the dinner party, referring to the castle people.
But are these apparently external forces, even cloaked in flesh and blood, simply the creations of Johan’s troubled mind? The fact that Alma can see them as well is no real proof that they exist. Husband and wife seem to share an odd psychic bond; she knows, for instance, that they’ve been invited to the castle before he passes the information on to her, without explanation, and an elderly woman (Naima Wifstrand) appears out of nowhere at one point and tells Alma where she can find Johan’s diary. Perhaps that’s another way in which Alma’s pregnancy is symbolic: it shows that she’s carrying part of Johan inside her, unsettling and unfamiliar though he increasingly becomes. Fear unites them and fear drives them apart, seemingly at the same time.
“This hour is the most difficult. Do you know what it’s called?” Johan asks Alma while they sit up together one night, waiting for the dawn and some small measure of relief from the unseen and unknown terrors of the darkness. She says no. “Old people used to call it the ‘hour of the wolf.’ It’s the hour when the most people die, when the most babies are born. It’s the hour when nightmares come to us. And if we are awake –” She finishes his sentence: “We are afraid.”
Hour of the Wolf airs on TCM at 11:30 PM EDT on Wednesday, August 14 as part of Liv Ullmann’s Summer Under the Stars day.
This post is part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.