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Film / Hour of the Wolf

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Original theatrical poster

Johan: The old ones called it "the hour of the wolf". It is the hour when most people die, and when most children are born. Now is when nightmares come to us. And if we are awake...
Alma: We're afraid.
Johan: We're afraid.

A darkly minimalistic, surrealistic ghost story by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman from 1968 (original title Vargtimmen), starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. The former plays Johan, a painter with a torrid romantic life behind him and Ullmann plays his doting wife, Alma. They live together in solitude on a deserted island when their bleak, windswept domestic bliss is intruded upon by a coterie of very crass, totally realistic looking, upper-middle-class spirits with a taste for fine art.

On the whole, the film relies on subverting common visual storytelling conventions to craft a rather complex Psychological Thriller with little to no special effects. To give some idea what's going on here, take the upper-middle-class spirits: On one level, they could be read as pointing to Johan's contempt for the shallow consumers of his art. They care only for the social currency it imparts. Being in society with these people saps Johan's artistic energy (metaphorically). Or, you might see the beings as supernatural beings that nevertheless are as physical as Johan and Alma. In which case, they are ghosts there to suck his life force. The film leaves both interpretations open for not only the viewer but also the characters. Johan and Alma are as terrified of their inability to fully discern between reality and figments of their imagination as the viewer unsure of what's going on. What's more, at one point, we're also wondering whether Alma, who finally begins to see the characters her husband sees, might even suffer from a shared delusion arising from her being too wrapped up in his strong-willed, charismatic artistic world. That adds a pretty heavy relationship dynamic to the whole thing, which touches somewhat on ideas about women's self-definition (such as in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House).


  • Ambiguous Situation: It's ambiguous how much of the film is real, and how much is Johan's hallucinations.
  • Author Avatar: Bergman admitted that Johan was based on himself, and of course Liv Ullmann was his Real Life partner at the time.
  • Creepy Child: A creepy child stalks Johan on the rocks near the sea.
  • Cringe Comedy: The dinner scene is played for this.
  • Fanservice: Ingrid Thulin flashes a breast in one scene, and appears completely nude in another, but the creepiness of the story might place it more in Fan Disservice territory.
  • Haunted Castle: Much of the interaction with the ghosts takes place in the castle.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Johan's sexual longing for a former lover is exploited by the ghosts to ensnare him.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Are the ghosts real or not? The audience cannot know definitively one way or the other.
  • Medium Awareness: The frame story is an interview with Alma from the film director in which she tells Johan's story. However, we never see him and he doesn't speak. He wants the audience to think we're seeing Alma through his eyes.
  • Nordic Noir: More of a Surreal Horror film than anything else, but it can be seen as the closest Bergman came to this particular genre, with the creepy atmosphere and disturbed characters.
  • Painting the Medium: The audio running during the title credits contains dialog from the actual film set, reminding the viewer that they are seeing a film.
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: Bergman claims the "hour of the wolf" referring to the hour of night when you're most vulnerable is a centuries-old concept. Linguists have been completely unable to find a single reference to it before 1968.
  • Psychological Torment Zone: Many of the interactions with the spirits seem to be elaborate attempts on their part to torment and consume Johan psychologically.
  • Surreal Horror
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Johan or Alma both could be hallucinating or they might be completely lucid.
  • Title Drop: According to Johan, the "hour of the wolf" is the time when the most babies are born, the most people die, and people are visited by nightmares.
  • Unreliable Narrator: We're seeing everything through Johan's and Alma's perspective, but it's implied that Alma has started to believe in his hallucinations, so Alma's account of Johan's story is difficult for us to believe. Finally, because The Director has written him — or herself into the story, we're faced with another unreliable narrator.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Johan kills a small child who he thinks is a specter haunting him.