Whatever compulsion artists feel towards self-portraiture, the pictures they paint clarify their artistic vision more than their personal characters. No less so for the master of cryptic film-making, Ingmar Bergman, who often saw a need to reflect on his work, though never to illuminate it.
Appropriately enough, Bergman decided to model his putatively most personal of films, "Hour of the Wolf," after The Sandman by the great German fantasy writer E.T.A. Hoffman, a story for which no critic ever has written a satisfactory and definitive interpretation. In both tales an artist of questionable talent and freakish temperament grows insane from his own delusions. And in both, the portrayal of sexual anxiety and madness defies resolution.
In Bergman's film, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) and his companion of seven years Alma (Liv Ullman) have retreated from exuberant society to a remote island off the coast of Sweden. Johan pretends a lurid affair drove him here years ago, but his diary, the centerpiece of the tale, reveals that his passion was never required. Already descending through a gate of illusion into utter madness, Johan finally snaps when Alma discovers his secret.
Bergman uses Hoffmann's aura of confusion both as an aegis for uncomfortable secrets and an illumination of Bergman's views on himself as an artist. He simply offers too many layers of perception for his viewers to discern properly between them. The viewer struggles with the same fear of uncertainty as the painter Johan.
If it sounds sly it is at least forgivable. No one would wish to adhere their own life story to Hoffmann's imagery. Even though he wrote a full century before Freud, Hoffmann packs The Sandman with towers, telescopes, eyes and other symbols of male genitalia which Freud would later co-opt for his Hauptthema. Bergman dodges any unfavorable associations and perhaps inaccurate parallels by altering his artist's sexual neuroses altogether from Hoffmann's.
Sexual anxiety in "Hour" has more to do with delusional love than anxiety. It's not just his wife Johan fears, it is high society itself--quick to leech off him for his artistic skill but just as eager to jeer at him as a spurned suitor or a freak.
But we suspect that to Bergman, paranoia always has some foundation in truth. He paints high society as truly parasitic and unpleasant, partially vindicating Johan. In short tracts discussing the role of the artist, Bergman - complained that 1960s' society forced the artist to prostitute himself for funding.
Part of the problem, and also the cleverness of the film, is that every character has a Doppelganger, further blurring the real and surreal, often beyond distinction. The barons and baronesses Johan encounters appear to him sometimes as they are and other times as he merely imagines them. Only after Alma tells the camera that she herself began seeing their neighbors through his dark lens do we realize Johan has been fantasizing about them all along.
Out of sheer consistency, even Bergman's themes have Doppelgangers. The paranoid artist could be Bergman himself or it could be any artist. Johan might be skirting high society out of fear of sexual humiliation or from feelings of freakishness. His mania might derive more from sexual dissatisfaction with the rather homely Alma than from any frustration with the way his neighbors' treat him. Johan obviously suffers his insanity so we feel compassion for him, but his moods make him too unpleasant to be truly sympathetic.
Similar dualities predominate Bergman's camera work. While Johan paints on the heath, the grass appears soft and fresh, but when he has a flashback about killing a boy while fishing on the rocky bluffs, those cliffs become jagged and sinister. And when Johan retreats to the woods, he imagines vampires and ravens tearing him apart in a tangled ravine.
By the end of his career Bergman said he was far less certain of himself and his work but therefore more wise than he had been during the early years. As with Hoffmann, "Hour of the Wolf" is as much a metaphor for indeterminacy and clouded perception as for insanity. Both artists share the very (post)-modern attitude that insanity is more akin to conviction than indecision. Appropriately, Bergman prevents his viewers from drawing too many conclusions.