When People Cannot Differentiate Between Internal and External Worlds And Then Take One For Another
Behind the credits of the “Hour of the Wolf” we hear noises of a set being made ready for the shot – a black frame… a black screen in fact, an image (if one can so describe it) of total darkness before the first real, luminous images… All this – night passing into day, darkness into an image – to anchor the narrative in a kind of primordial night… Liv Ullmann is revealed… confiding the story… This second narration (the first is the introductory darkness) is soon “illustrated” – a third narrative, this time peopled with “characters” follows on from her confession. This narrative proceeds up to the point when Liv Ullmann discovers her husband’s diary… So, there is a fourth narrative superimposed onto the first three… Her reading is in turn illustrated: a fifth narrative is grafted on to its predecessors. Phantasms of extreme violence are unleashed by this new proliferation of the unfolding narrative. Up to the moment when Liv confesses to her husband that she has read his diary. Now begins a long night, in which the couple’s phantasms… begin to develop in common… After the night in the castle, the climax of this eruption of dreams, the house of cards begins piece by piece to collapse. The characters evaporate, melt into the night… Liv resumes her confession at the point where we left her in the start, in the same close-up.
Cahiers du Cinema 1960 – 1968, Harvard Univ. Press, p. 313, 315
The worst are the ‘hours of the wolf’… between three and five. That is when the demons come: mortification, loathing, fear and rage. There is no point in trying to suppress them, for that makes it worse.
Ingmar Bergman, “The Magic Lantern”, Penguin, 1988, p. 226
Of course, works of art create themselves, and dream of killing both father and mother. Of course, they exist before the artist discovers them. But it’s always “Orpheus”, always “Oedipus”. I thought that by changing castle I’d change ghosts and that here a flower could make them flee.
Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”
Bergman’s film is about a psychological phenomenon that is quite widespread in our time – when a person’s impulses, intentions and desires go out of the control of his/her psychological wholeness – of his personality and holistic identity. In US in the 21st century we observe more and more people with the inability not only to control their impulses, but to rationally take into consideration the consequences of their actions. Even people’s everyday actions and decisions become impregnated with their instinctive impulsivity, impatience and expectation of quick results. More, this is true not only about regular people – even the decision-makers are like this – immature and not capable of self-reflection, whose calculations are not thought through and made angrily, often belligerently and with electronic speed. “Thinking” for these people means to justify the decisions they already instinctively have made. It expresses itself in all the areas of life – in personal relations, in politics (Bush Jr. type of bravado decision-making, the neo-conservative politicians’ adolescently blind and wide-sweeping passions, today’s policemen’s panicky shooting unarmed people, erroneous profitmaking of the financial entrepreneurs, with disastrous consequences for global populations because of their inability to resist the imaginary profits, arm-chair killing of civilians by sitting in air-conditioned offices drone operators, in general thinking about life as moneymaking and fight for more power, the inability to keep the sexual impulses and private addictions under control, impersonalized and depersonalized consumerism, etc.)
The socio-psychological phenomenon of pluralism of social life which was always a point of pride for democratic systems, is perceived in the 21st century as an adversary factor – for people ruling democracies today the international versatility is not only a burden but an obstacle and a menace. They encourage in masses suspicion for otherness and paranoid reactions. Bergman’s film shows the process of pluralization of reality through multiplication of narrations, characters and situations which the main characters cannot assimilate and tolerate without extremely defensive reactions and frustrations. Collapse of the artist’s psychological wholeness and transformation of peoples into (shattered) phantoms and ghosts – shadowy creatures without identities – here is Bergman‘s comment about the future of human societies which becomes a reality for us today. In this sense Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” is a dystopia not without a political connotation. When individuals are no longer able to think without fear deforming their thinking, when philosophers become just specialists in philosophers of the past, when artists become entertainers, then the regular people are transformed into phantoms without identity and humanity (contaminated with aggressive, dangerous unconscious energies).
Bergman masterfully personifies this situation as a problem of the artistic self’s failure in the talented painter Johan Borg, whose partial creative impulses as a result of his psychological fragmentation are going out of control – when his imaginary constructions (his phantoms, his aesthetic interpretation of various people, his figurative imagination) started to rebel against his artistic will. But let’s be sure that in Bergman’s film these imaginary personages which are the inner images of the artistic unconscious/conscious are also real human beings who are like appendixes to their obsessions and suffer from existential depravity – the ontological incompleteness producing a basic “inferiority complex” fixating people on external achievements as a result of their internal emptiness. Psychological fragmentation tends to flatten the human psyche, reduce it to partial interests, which are always impulsive and unable to provide human being with a solid ontological rootedness and existential perspective. That’s how people today hunt after jobs and consumer items, after images ripped away from the context, after ideological sound-bites and crumbs of bliss provided by rock concerts and mass events, alcohol and drugs. So, Bergman in “Hour of the Wolf” simultaneously analyses the situation of a talented artist who is losing creative control over his figurative images – his phantoms (his internal objects), and the psychological condition of regular people who pursuit false (absurd) goals (like the inhabitants of Baron von Merkens’ castle) because they are ontologically deprived and unconsciously feel that they are “inferior” and for this reason are restless and over-agitated to achieve and be rewarded with social status and power.
As a result of his sensitivity and talent the artist repeats in his sub-conscious the condition of people he comes across in social settings and through his imagination reinvents them for the purpose of his art. By the logic of artistic creativity Johan Borg shares his social phantoms’ ontological deprivation to the horror of his wife Alma. The artist (Johan Borg) registers the condition of people as that of his inner objects which “represents” inside his psyche the truth about the psychological condition of people in the real world.
But the artist (Borg) personifies not only his own inner objects and not only the psychologically regular people (the members of Merkens family and their entourage), but also the condition of human culture in the times of cultural fragmentation (much like this period we live in today in the Western societies when culture cannot democratically control (humanize) the psychological state of its people who dramatically regress from the more rational way of psychological organization into chaotic and impulsive feelings and behavior). Bergman’s film is a diagnosis of today’s planetary culture (symbolized by Johan Borg’s psyche which reaches the point of anomie).
A big part of the film is dedicated to the depiction of the artist’s relationships with figures of authority, stylistically enigmatized and demonized by his imagination, while also reflecting truth of these personages with their self-confident manners, the imperative verbalizations, rather of mature age, materially very prosperous and socially influential. Amongst them there are modifications of parental figures (paternal and maternal) – Baron von Merkens (spider-man) and Corinne von Merkens (his wife), of grand-maternal (Countess von Merkens, Baron’s mother), of grand-grand-maternal (The Lady with a hat) who not only takes away her hat, but also her face (in order to hear better the music of an imaginary composer). There is also an uncle-like Ernst von Merkens. Besides that Bergman introduces us to the personifications of two aspects of an intellectual art-criticism – the performative aspect (archivist Lindhorst, the bird-man) and the “public relation” aspect (curator Heerbrand) in two incarnations – as a “homosexual” attracted to the artist’s exhibitionism, and the development of the theme of “schoolmaster with the pointer in his trousers” – a despotic (self-imposing and intrusive educator).
Johan Borg in the film represents rather a modernist painter with the ability to perceive other people critically – the ability which contributes to the artist’s conflict with society (that contradicts the traditional “romantic” concept of art as a beautiful alternative to the reality). Archetypal figures of the Western psyche whom Bergman represents as Borg’s neighbors, want to be idealized, worshiped and adored, and they strike back for a lack of reverie towards them on the part of the artist. Johan Borg becomes the hero of modernist (critical and democratic) art, fighting with the despotic images and social structures from the past and falling in this battle while trying to deconstruct and to debunk the traditional authoritarian values. Before his psychological collapse, Johan Borg was existentially oriented and didn’t want the images of art to be grandiose, superhuman, eternal, over-beautiful as they are supposed to be in the traditionally understood “great art”.
Another extensive topic Bergman touches on in this film is the antagonistic relation between the artist’s personal life on the one hand and his fixation on the archetypal images of his imagination on the other. “The art of living together is Bergman’s central concern.” (P. Livingston, “Ingmar Bergman and the Ritual of Art”, Cornell Univ. Press, 1982, p. 244). Johan’s inability to stay with his wife Alma (who personifies the human wholeness), incompatibility between his more and more shattered psyche and her holistic personality refers to a tragedy not only for art, but for human culture when both losing wholeness and becoming an appendix to the drive for material success (art-makers) and immediate satisfaction (the audience). Traditional forms of despotism are activated in democratic societies under new masks, and purity of the soul (Alma) is unable to withstand growing irrational fears armed with animosity. The intellectual artist must fight alone and is doomed. Johan feels farther and farther from Alma’s love. She is a metonymy of existential genuineness, of ontological presence. Three Alma’s gazes are registered by Sven Nykvist’s camera – one at Johan when he is going through his sleepless night hours, the other – at the puppet representation of Mozart’s opera, and third – at Johan’s portrait of Veronica Vogler – represent the abyss between life and art in a condition of disintegration. In these three gazes Liv Ullmann expresses a mixture of curiosity and disgust, a combination of disappointment and compassion, of disbelief and contempt for the miserable human condition of being obsessed with pleasures of darkness, with self-aggrandizement inside a cave (with the same expression Alma could look at the TV or movie screen showing commercial TV programs or entertaining Hollywood films). The artist cannot reach personal happiness – he is too divided between his concentration on the images of ontological inferiority and the reality of human wholeness.
Johan Borg is involved in two relationships – with an existential woman (Alma) and with the object of his “romantic” obsession – Veronica Vogler. The coexistence of these two types of love refers to a clash between an elevated seductive love – a greedy-consumerist one, and a pure but artless and wingless, even, somehow a prosaic love of “real life”. Then the scene of the film where Johan Borg is searching for Veronica Vogler in the castle of voyeurs and vampires is Bergman’s surrealistic parody not only on “Magic Flute” – on Mozart’s idea of ordeal which the beloveds have to go through on their way to happiness, but on the very tradition of romantic love and conventional idea of love between man and woman. Johan is successfully passes through the five ordeals, all of which violate and go against his morality and integrity.
But the real comedy of horrors starts when Johan Borg approaches his beloved who, according to the code of behavior suggested by the endless tales of Western culture, is lying as if dead while waiting for his resurrecting gaze-and-touch (her nakedness is covered by a white sheet like in morgue). Parody on traditional concept of heterosexual love here has an impressive intensity. Woman is supposed to pretend that she is completely sexually inert so as not to shock man and by this inactiveness to arouse him. Then he will be able to feel his vigor and assert himself with her with his magic touch/kiss which will bring her to life from her natural state of passivity. Under Borg’s desiring palm Veronica not only resurrects but becomes feverishly, maniacally excited and starts to hysterically kiss him with an uncontrollable urge. This is a caricature version of how a woman ought to react on a man’s touch, according to traditional cultural expectation. Not less symptomatic is the fact that when our great lovers Johan and Veronica are on the way to sexual culmination, the phantoms who with voyeuristic voluptuousness watch the scandalous love affair, started to jeeringly laugh at the romantic pair. With this humiliating laughter announcing to the oblivious couple their presence, the phantoms express to the lovers their jealous revenge. Borg’s vampires here behave like majority of American public in the situation of Clinton-Lewinski affair – they watched this affair while holding their breath and with secret pleasure, but unanimously scolded the president for immorality.
Today, the psychological situation of American public is even worse. With the intensification of neocon austerity agenda the suspiciousness and paranoid emotional predisposition in political and world views and personal relations become intensified, like relations between Johan Borg and the inhabitants of the castle – his neighbors, and eventually, between him and his wife. Psychological tolerance of others and ritualistic politeness (civility) are in a process of being transformed into despair armed with crimes and hysterical violence (like in road rage). If in a situation of Bergman’s Johan Borg his figurative images become mutually repulsive, in a situation of regular people the very perception of others become more prejudicial and impregnated with suspicion and hate – in terms of Bergman’s film people start to see others as demonic figures. A wave of hateful suspicion struck Russia and Germany in the 30s and US during the presidency of George Bush Jr. in the very beginning of 21st century. Today, the American civil population is under the most extensive surveillance in human history. American culture today is losing its humanistic and democratic orientation. The young need education and guidance and not police brutality. Non-commercial art and humanistic education (liberal arts) are losing support, and more and more students have to turn to technical and applied professions to be able to work for corporate Tyrannosauruses.
By showing the collapse of Johan Borg’s internal world Bergman points at the weakening of positivity in human relationships inside and between countries, a growing hate between people in parallel with diminishing rationality and kindness towards others. The film analyses the brutalization of the emotional environment between people. Johan Borg was an intellectual artist who became mentally sick and lost his creative ability. In the “Hour of the Wolf” Bergman warns our culture about the decline of our psychological health through losing our existential taste for humanism (this situation is visually expressed in the film by the loss of mediation between light and darkness – stepping into a world of extreme contrasts).
In Johan Borg’s disturbing psychological portrait we not only see the predicament of today’s humanistic intellectuals but the situation of ordinary people who have lost control over their inner and external environment.
“Flower is made from your blood (said Cegestius in Jean Cocteau’s “The Testament of Orpheus” to the artist) and has adopted the same rhythms as your destiny.” Bergman’s Johan Borg was “devoured” by his figurative images/psychological objects (and people incarnated them) because he lost his “phoenixological” ability to restore “flowers” to life in and through his art.
posted on 11, 11 2015 – “Hour Of The Wolf” (1968) By Ingmar Bergman by Acting-Out Politics