“A minute is actually an immense space of time.”
My favorite moment from Ingmar Bergman’s “Vargtimmen” (Hour of the Wolf) comes nearly halfway through the film. For the viewer, it is a test of faith offered by a artist assured of his craft who knows full well that time is the beating heart of film. Time is what makes the medium so magnificently absorbing, and a full minute passes in the film as we watch both characters’ faces. Alma (Liv Ullman) is uncomfortable because her husband is losing his mind, but that discomfort only translates to the viewer if you aren’t engaged by the story and the nuance of each actor’s movements, the subtle shifts in their faces, the light and shadows. The minute expands, a minute universe.
In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he says the film “requires a creative act of imagination from his audience, the same sort of suspension of disbelief that Disney asks the kids to make for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But the adults in the audience I observed didn’t seem up to the effort. They snickered and whispered and made boors of themselves.”
I watched it alone in the dark at 2:00 am, and was mesmerized and haunted. Like Bergman’s best works, there are scenes that leave indelible impressions–the corpse in the castle, the witch who first approaches Alma, the murder of the young boy, the dark forest stream where Johan (Max Von Sydow) finally disappears.
Since my daughter was born almost three months ago, I’ve made my way through a good portion of Bergman’s oeuvre. I still haven’t gotten to many of his earliest works aside from “Summer With Monika” and “Smiles of a Summer Night,” but my favorites films are (naturally) the weirdest or most brutal: “Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” “The Silence,” “Persona,” “Cries and Whispers,” “Fanny and Alexander.”
Hour of the Wolf doesn’t have nearly the same emotional heft of his later films, but it tests the limits of his art in other ways. Johan, fully cracked, looks at his tormentors in the castle: The mirror has been shattered. But what do the fragments reflect?”
We can only try to make sense of them.