Monday, April 17, 2006

The Hour of the Wolf (Bergman, 1968)

In the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman did a crazy little thing: he deconstructed the construct of cinema, called attention to its artificiality, shattered every notion of the third wall, and went altogether insane. Which is to say, this was a brilliant decade for a brilliant man. In Persona before Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf), the camera reverses itself, giving us a shot of the crew and Bergman himself. In the Passion of Anna after it, the actors are interviewed as a means of delving more directly into both the psychologies of the characters and the methods and psychologies of the actors themselves. Narrative and the artifice that creates the narrative becomes intertwined. What more common statement, then, is there than the opening credits of Vargtimmen: we hear sounds of construction, saws, hammers, and voices. The familiar can distinguish Bergman himself, the unfamiliar recognize the authoritativeness of the voice and likely get the message. As we watch the names of those who will craft our evening's illusion flash upon the screen, the reality behind the illusion becomes audible.

In the next scene we meet Alma (Liv Ullman), who tells tangentially of her husband's (Max Von Sydow as Johan) downfall. This is passed off as documentary, with Ullman speaking directly to the camera, and therefore to the audience. This again beats the third wall to the ground, and it lies in rubble for the rest of the picture. Bergman's work has always been reflexive to the director himself, and now the film is reflexive to cinema itself. Vargtimmen manages to be utterly self-aware, yet simultaneously captivating and believable. The relationship between film and audience becomes a statement in itself concerning suspension of disbelief: it is only by will that the audience believes in the construct. There is a duality to the viewing that tantalizes the viewer with neat classification (is the film horror, surrealism, tragedy, comedy?), yet keeps all such labels gloriously out of reach.

In a Bergman film, you can count on any artist present as being a surrogate for the director himself. It is with great audacity, then, that Bergman casts himself as such a despicable creature. The first half of the film recalls Fellini's La Dolce Vita at points, in which the island's bourgeoisie seduces Johan with flattery concerning his paintings and a past fling with one Veronica Vogler, who is mentioned in passing though never fully explicated (of course a smart move, but from Bergman it's to be expected). Johan is disgusted by the people who live in the castle on his island (who can easily stand in for all of society, especially those with a desire and capacity to consume art), but also fascinated. This is the constant struggle of an artist, and a duality present in Bergman's cinema (perhaps most memorably in Through A Glass Darkly, in which Karin's father is both horrified by his daughter's illness and powerless against the impulse to watch and record its progression as fodder for his new novel).

A moment of startling clarity is realized when Johan makes an elaborate monologue concerning his status as an artist, saying he calls himself 'artist' only for lack of a better term, that he merely acts upon a compulsion, that he cannot understand why he has been recognized as a special artist among others, and finally that he is humbled by the simple realization of how utterly useless art is in the pragmatic world. He is applauded for the bravery of his speech by the island dwellers, for he had created a mini-masterpiece in front of their eyes. Johan's sincerity is never determined, though one gets the feeling he believed it as he spoke it even if he never meant it in any absolute sense. A second high point occurs when a woman in the castle shows Johan and Alma a painting she bought, one that Johan painted of his former lover Veronica Vogler, and explains to Alma what a significant piece of her husband she owns. The idea of works being a part of an artist, and the body of work as a whole being such a large portion of the person that there is no room for personal relationships is a recurring theme in both the films and the life of Ingmar Bergman.

I've managed to thus far avoid Alma's role in the film for the most part, but in ways she is the protagonist. We watch as she slowly disintegrates, not in the way that Johan will, but because of Johan's disintegration. Her eyes as black pools as she watches a recreation of a scene from The Magic Flute perhaps sum up her entire function in the film. She is losing Johan, and she blames herself. In the final scene, she will beg of the audience again, looking directly into the camera, to know if she loved Johan too much, and so indulged his flights of fancy (if they are indeed fancy), or too little, and this is why he left her. Poor Alma never considers that maybe she isn't to blame.

Johan's utter embarassment at the end of the film is no less tragic, if more karmically sound. It is on his way to meet Veronica Vogler and annihilating embarrassment, though, that the film unhinges or finally focuses, depending on your perspective. The genre elements at this point border on both the grotesque and the absurd-to-the-point-of-hilarity. They are also extraordinarily self-aware, and the doubt this casts on the audience's illusion mirrors Johan's doubt that what he's seeing exists. Everything in the film is transient, and the vampires and other monsters in the film may or may not exist. The only act of vampirism that occurs for certain is the soul-sucking laughter that is produced by this group as they watch a made-up Johan try to reclaim a lost romance. These people say thay love his art, but they are voyeurs who love scandal more. This is moral grotesquery as opposed to the earlier of a visual nature, but it is again coupled with a subtle thread of irony. In a way, we want to laugh along with these people, and hate them for it, and question their existence, and maybe watch their end. We feel the same way about the film.

The film was written, shot, and released during a time when Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman were dating. Ullman was, in fact, pregnant with Bergman's child, but did not live with him at the time. It is easy to see how this could be a direct message to the young and admittedly naive Ullman, who says she did not understand how a film about the impossibility of coexistence with an unstable male artist could apply to her at the time. In retrospect, it was a fair warning from a man who was likely unstable only because he was so painfully aware of his own inadequacies. He made the film to explicate why making the film necessitates the making of the film. If you understand the preceding statement, you understand the works of Ingmar Bergman.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review of a film I have yet to see. And, actually, this necessitates the question that is ideal for you: as you're a Bergman fanatic, would it be wiser to pick up his Triology of Faith or the 5-6 pack featuring Shame, this, and Persona, among others...?

Paul aka Dreamdead on RT, hoping to see you continue these, as I've always enjoyed your writings

7:25 AM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...

Very tough. I lean toward Trilogy of Faith, but the other is very good as well. It contains The Serpent's Egg, which isn't good by Bergman standards. But the three other films are great.

I'd say go with the trilogy. It has nicer packaging and essays and stuff.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent job. I hope you keep it up.

8:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:15 AM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...

Oh, the things people will do under anonymity. But, how can I refuse?

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You saucy minx you. Rawr.

12:41 PM  

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