As guest artistic director of this year’s AFI Fest, David Lynch gets to screen some old classics that mean a lot to him. One of them is Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, whose psychological horror techniques echo throughout Lynch’s oeuvre from Eraserhead on. I will admit to having an unresolved relationship with Bergman (don’t we all!) but whichever way you slice it, this is a film both of brilliantly mounted psychological tension and of naked, neurotic exposure that could have been made by nobody but Bergman, and would barely even have been contemplated by anyone else. Partly because he displays that same sense of self-importance as always, but this time it’s fundamental to the subject matter, and in any case it’s hard to say that it isn’t actually justified.
The film is set up in good mysterious style by the passed-on-diary device of a vanished artist, and a mournful opening monologue from his lover Alma (Liv Ullmann). Max von Sydow is the stern-faced Johan, recovering from an unspecified physical illness with possible mental roots, on a possibly deserted island. They enjoy a moment of happy idyll, but as soon as Johan lights a gaslamp beneath his face, the darkness comes rushing on. Johan shows Alma (not us!) the grotesque figures who appear in his sketchbook; visions arrive: his dead mother, a past lover, a sycophant. The sycophant turns up again, when they accept an invitation to dine with the brusque, menacing Baron (Erland Josephson) in his castle on the otherside of the island. The aristocratic guests, it turns out, are something like a manifestation of Johan’s demons, led by the sinister vampiric figure identified with Johan’s sketchbook Birdman.
The film is split explicitly into two halves, and when the Hour of the Wolf comes on, that dead of night time when it seems day may never yet come again, and one’s darkest fears and impulses take control, physical reality becomes relative as Johan embarks on a nightmare course through the surreal geography of the castle, needled and threatened by the uncanny aristocrats; he’s directed into a tryst with a grotesque former lover, and finally experiences the artist’s ultimate humiliation, clown-faced before a cruel, laughing audience, unable to perform, deprived even of his physical voice.
The film is remarkable both for its technique of escalating horror, and for the autobiographical nakedness of the artistic insecurity. Bergman borrows a certain amount from the classic tradition – the Birdman is a deliberate dead-ringer for Lugosi, complete with Nosferatu’s folded ears, and Erlandson is hot to look like Karloff as the Monster. But there’s hugely effective use of concrete music and Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro photography is dazzlingly brilliant, and the film is filled witheerily surreal moments all of its own, be it a corridor flapping with birds, an old woman removing her eyeballs and face, or a spine-tingling effect that has the Baron walk tortured and hunched up a wall and onto the ceiling, physical horror born of pure emotion (and an ur-epitome of the Lynchian style).
The result is hugely effective – manipulative to an extent, of course, like all horror films, but shot through with a dread that is palpably Bergman’s own (autobiographical elements are sprinkled throughout) and a desperation made explicit in Johan’s passionate explanation of the artist’s compulsion to create, in the face of a world that doesn’t care. A shame therefore, that the nightmare ends in prosaically explicit fashion, unmistakably pointing to a specific guilt as the source of his self-torture. A shame too, that Liv Ullman’s character is smothered with the characteristic Bergman preference for a beautiful, intelligent woman who will stick by her man no matter what, utterly subservient; like Bergman himself, Johan is a great man, through one’s relationship to whom it is only natural that a partner should define herself, it seems.
The film was conceived as a companion piece to Persona, and that earlier work’s theme of personality transference/merger is prodded again, but far less fruitfully – Alma is a spectator to Johan’s visions and suggests that the demons have been transferred to her at the end, but its a slightly irrelevant adjunct to the central portrait of the tortured artist, and feels merely like an excuse to have a spectator. They are both brilliant, of course, and Bergman lets them free on a number of long takes of textured acting dynamics, while Ullman does at least give Alma a tragic helplessness – she can make you cry just be looking at a camera – as she attempts to pull the dismissive Johan back to the real world.
However one feels about Bergman and his self-regard, this is a killer example of a master film-maker at the peak of his powers. With this film and Persona it is not as though he uses a lots of experimental techniques (though he kind of does), but one feels that he could use anything at all, that he has all of cinema’s possibilities at his fingertips, and that he knows how to invent what he needs. It’s not an easy film, but approached with caution, neither is it an especially difficult one; if one is prepared to pay a little attention, it is a rich and frightening and totally captivating experience, which is just as it should be.