Hour of the Wolf (1968) is an Ingmar Bergman film about an artist losing his mind on a remote Frisian Island. The artist is played by Max von Sydow, made to look maniacal or simply hapless throughout much of the film. Von Sydow, of course, is a beautiful man with valiant features -- he looks like a saint carved in wood by the great German medieval sculptor, Tilman Riemenschneider. But Bergman shoots him in extreme close-up with a lens that spreads his features and gives him a vaguely Slavic appearance; in other scenes, the artist's face is covered in pastywhite make-up and his cheeks rouge above painted lips.. It's characteristic of the film that Bergman vandalizes the appearance of his leading man -- the entire enterprise is self-destructive, willfully perverse, and deeply embittered. Of course, Bergman was a great film maker but Hour of the Wolf is really too dispiriting to be any fun watching. In many respects, the film seems to be re-make of Bergman's much greater, and equally disturbing, Persona -- however, the psychological horror on display in Persona here has deteriorated, I think, into a sort of fun-house ghoulishness. (Bergman was sick with pneumonia during the production of the film and has said that he thinks the movie is far too personal. The distance between Bergman and his fictional surrogate here is so uncomfortably close that the director himself disliked the picture.)
The film's premise is similar to The Shining. An artist retires to a remote island to renew his talents and seek inspiration. But he is afflicted by terrible nightmares that he paints and sketches in his notebook. He keeps a diary, primarily an account of his night-terrors. The artist's companion is played by Liv Ullman and her robust, freckle-faced beauty is incongruous among the various cannibals and vampires that inhabit the island. She's pregnant and its apparent that the relationship between her and the artist is collapsing -- probably unable to bear the weight of commitment symbolized by the unborn child. As it happens, the artist remains obsessed by a woman named Veronica Vogler, his previous lover and muse and, now, an angry ghost. The artist is invited to a soiree at the island's castle. The castle-keeper is played by Erland Josephson as a decadent art collector who has gathered around himself a nasty group of middle-aged and older sycophants. These people seem to be sexually perverse and they stay up all night drinking and taunting one another with sadistic sexual innuendo. About half-way through the film, a title is projected identifying the action as occurring thereafterduring the "hour of the wolf" -- that is, the early morning hour when most people die and when most babies are born. During this hour, the artist is confronted by his demons, including the corpse of Veronika Vogler -- people pull off their faces and deposit their eyes in glasses of water and all sorts of other horrible stuff occurs. The artist flees these demons and enters a dark, flooded forest, the sort of landscape that Tarkovsky employs in many of his films. His girlfriend pursues him. As in Persona, the artist's madness has infected his companion and she begins to see, and participate in, the nightmares that afflict her lover. The film is all joyless horror and, in the end, the artist vanishes without a trace. His lover keeps his notebooks and sketchpads and, it becomes clear, that he has probably transmitted his misery and madness to her. Liv Ullman addresses the camera and says that relationships end with the person's assuming one another's identities. But, of course, as dramatized by Bergman this is sexist nonsense -- we don't see the tormented artist becoming cheerful, healthy, and happy like his relatively clear-minded girlfriend: in Bergman-world, the influence goes only one way: the tortured man injects his madness into his reasonably normal lover.
The film is short (80 minutes) and has some hallmarks of an experimental picture. Under the opening titles, we hear people giving commands, pounding nails, and using power tools to construct the sets for the film. This eradication of the fourth-wall, however, is woefully lacking from the rest of the film which takes itself, and its various visions, with the utmost seriousness. There is nothing playful in this picture -- everything is dark, dire, and miserable. At one point, after discussing some childhood physical abuse, the nearly nude artist encounters himself as a ten year old boy and, after some provocation, kills the kid -- we later see little boy's corpse with bashed-in head floating in the cold ocean waters where the hero has been fishing. The struggles of the artist with his corpse-muse are delivered to us with crashing literalness and the movie just suddenly ends -- we're told that the artist vanished forever and his story is preserved only in his diary and sketchpads. We never see the artist's work and, so, of course, are deprived of the opportunity to assess whether his paintings justify all this campy Sturm und Drang. In many ways, the film seems like a parody of Bergman, but it's humorless. Anything by Bergman is worth seeing for his mastery of film technique -- and this picture is no exception: its chock-full of strange visionary shots, weird and upsetting transitions and long, morose soliloquies. But it's far from Bergman at his best and most powerful and, indeed, the picture is so sullenly morose as to be seem a bit risible.