When I recently reviewed Bergman’s “Skammen” I mentioned that that one was probably the most accessible of Bergman’s movies. “Vargtimmen” (Hour of the Wolf) is at the other end of the spectrum. This is a very difficult movie to watch and to parse. I am still not certain what it is I have been watching.
A synopsis of the movie would not make a lot of sense unless it is so rudimentary that it does not convey what is actually happening, so let me start with what I can tell. There is a couple in the movie, Alma (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Max von Sydow), who live on an island. Johan is a painter of some fame, but also suffering from some sort of mental disease. Alma tells the story of how Johan succumbed to this disease in a series of flashbacks. It is very difficult to connect these flashbacks, which may or may not be chronological, as they get increasingly fantastical. A lot of it is hallucinations, of people appearing in Johan’s mind to somehow torture him, but they seem to appear to Alma as well, which is rather confusing. There is a theme of people preying on the artist, some sexual haunts and a lot of self-loathing. This would not be Bergman without a lot of that.
Eventually Johan disappears in a forest, but not before he has killed a boy, revived his dead ex-girlfriend and watch a countess take off her face.
So, what do you do when you have no idea what you are watching? Well, the Book offers some interpretation and so does Wikipedia. This is supposed to be a horror story about vampires… okay… well, horror makes some sense. Stories of people losing their minds are per definition horrific, but the only vampire here seems to be in Johan’s mind as he sucks his own life out.
There is also supposed to be a criticism of the public treatment of artists, which also baffles me. Again, the Johan is the tormentor and tormented at the same time and obviously he feels that everybody wants him, his work and his achievements.
There is also some Mozart, or supposed to be…
I found the movie incredibly hard to watch because it made so little sense. As soon as personal madness is in play, anything is possible and very little of it has to make sense. That is why it is called madness. In the fantastical genre there is a rule that the internal logic must be obeyed. Whatever rules that apply must be followed. With madness there are no rules and without this internal logic everything we watch can only be interpreted as symbols. In this case symbols of Johan’s self-destructive mind.
There is also supposed to be a connection to Skammen, but I really cannot see what that connection is, except if it is about humans being subjected to forces they cannot control.
I do not think I would recommend this to anybody but die-hard Bergman fans and certainly not to those looking for classic horror. There is a certain masochistic market for insanity movies, which may explain the large number of that kind of movies available and “Vargtimmen” may have an audience there.