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We Are Only Vessels for Art: Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf

October 10, 2023

Written by Helena Wang

It’s always fascinating how humanity has always been so engrossed in art, how easily it takes us into another dimension, and how addicting entering that world can be. All art has stood against time in a manner that almost precedes any other human creation. The art of film, though a considerably more modern art form than others, has shown time and time again to be something humanity returns to; the beauty of film stems from viewers’ perpetual inclination to attempt to understand it.

Since 1993, Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre has been showing their love for the art of filmmaking, screening various films from the past as a form of film appreciation. On October 9, their screening of Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 psychological horror film Hour of the Wolf attracted crowds of people, all eager to experience the filmic world of the past. Actress, director, and philanthropist Liv Ullmann herself was present to introduce the film. The entire room was captivated, in awe of her presence. Not a single phone pointed towards her direction, only the faces of her admirers, gazing up at her with looks of wonder, feeling nothing but her voice as it traveled through the cinema.

“In this movie you will see the greatest artist I’ve ever worked with… it gave me the richness of my life,” Ullmann said of Bergman, the film’s director.

Throughout Ullmann’s speech, one was reminded of our society’s fear of the passage of time.  Hearing her speak about her experience as though the film was made yesterday felt incredibly touching; it was an embodiment of the love she has for the film, but also for the renowned connection between her and Bergman that made their films together so special. Her fondness for the time that has passed since. Perhaps we go back to older films, to places like Coolidge Corner Theatre, to transport ourselves away from the modern world, to remind ourselves of how art transcends the passage of time.

Hour of the Wolf delves into the life of painter Johan Borg (played by Max Von Syndow) and his journey of artistic expression with his wife, Alma Borg (played by Liv Ullmann). The film evidently draws on surrealist film techniques, bringing viewers beyond the boundaries of the imagination and into the subconscious, where nothing appears to make sense. Bergman dives into the twisted complexities of Borg’s mind, blurring the lines of reality for him and for viewers. We follow Borg’s artistic pursuit, but what started as a quiet retreat soon becomes tormenting; his art seems to unfold into the real world, and the separation between conscious and subconscious no longer exists.

Yet, throughout the entire film, Bergman “never shows Borg’s paintings, but what he shows is what is happening inside his head, his soul,” said Ullmann. The film comments on the way that artists are almost like vessels for the art that they create. There is some element of infatuation, almost obsession, with the way art influences the human body. As the film progresses, viewers are made aware of the way the film invites a physical reaction, the effect of art penetrating through them.

The moving image itself is an illusion of many images played in quick succession. Bergman reminds us of this trick, using the frame itself to depict the borders of Borg’s mind, trapping him inside his own art and paintings—creativity, it seems, is not always a blessing.

Bergman has always incorporated a degree of self-reflexivity in his films, and in this one, he plays on the way viewers’ minds construct meaning out of the images he projects on the screen. He forces them to welcome the art shown on screen into themselves. The concept of all art is made personal, and Hour of the Wolf is placed into the hands of the viewer.

“You see what you want to see.”—Hour of the Wolf

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