Thursday 12 September 2019

Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1968)

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.


  1. The melancholic style is similar to Bergman's other work but I can understand your confusion. For me a dream-like film about insomnia and the horror of social interactions for an introvert. But the beauty of the story is could mean something different the next time I watch. The madness interpretation you mention is plausible too. I love ambiguity (remember I love Kubrick's 2001) so I was bewitched.

    1. I love 2001: a space odyssey too, but I cannot help thinking there is something unsatisfying when internal consistency is lost. Even a crazy story like Twin Peaks had internal consistency even if it got strained.

  2. That’s the downside, ambiguity in stories can be nonsensical. But I like a good unsolved mystery, some things in life are hidden or unexplained.

  3. I would say that ambiguity and consistency are two different things. I love it when the story is open ended and we can see in it what we want. Consistency is more linked to causality. Godard threw that out the window and that is a large part of why I dislike his movies. I know I am a bit obsessive with these things but internal consistency is a major criteria for me when evaluating a movie.