I feel a slight uncertainty in reviewing Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Just the word “uncertain” may be enough to summarize the film. This gothic tale boasts a twisted view on the way that memories can haunt a person, and the memories that stir from the aftermath of Hour of the Wolf bring to mind many questions.
Johan (Max von Sydow) is hounded by a troubled past. Taking refuge in the countryside with his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann), he continues to work on his paintings and drawings. Still, the country isn’t enough to keep him safe from the demons that lurk around every corner. Johan only becomes more and more obsessed by his memories, when suddenly the local aristocrats begin to rise against him — or so he believes. But he’s not alone; Alma also feels the oppression of both Johan’s troubles and the odd aristocrats that continue to seemingly haunt the land that they strive to find peace in.
Ingmar Bergman was a master of cinema, and Hour of the Wolf is one more example of why. We begin with Alma confessing that she has no idea what has happened to Johan anymore. He is allegedly missing after having gone mad. But the question that’s constantly posed to us is one that we find oh so often in Hamlet: is he mad or just overly obsessed? Does Johan control the world he lives in, or does it consume him, mind and body alike? To be honest, even after seeing this film, I can’t answer that question. Bergman’s ability to create vivid characters is astounding, and Johan is his Hamlet. In the beginning, we hear him describing horrific people and exhibiting, strange behaviors. Sometimes, it’s the small actions that bring out the most in characters; these just help build Johan into a colossus of interesting.
The film is dreary, as is par for the course with Bergman. There isn’t as much of a focus on sadness as there is in, say, Winter Light. Hour of the Wolf is bathed in dark themes. The castle of the aristocrats looks like a gorgeous haunted mansion, with demons waiting to drag people to the grave. Exploring the walls of it is a treat and a privilege. Bergman’s careful shooting throws us into a loop of questioning what is real and what is mere fabrication.
The only complaint I can muster is that the plot isn’t very strong. There’s a much larger focus on character madness, which works its way up in an eerily subtle way. The introduction gives us a great first impression but also a slightly flawed one. It leads us to believe things are more extreme than they turn out to be. But still, this isn’t so bad. What results later is pleasantly surprising, and far from what we ever expected.
Hour of the Wolf is a great piece of personal gothic haunting. I can’t help but wonder why more people don’t attempt films like this today. It’s surreal but not disconnected from where we stand in reality. Things stay gritty and mysterious throughout, and the overall experience is satisfying and rewarding. Give it a go if you’re into the haunting film style. You won’t be disappointed.