Hour of the Wolf

Jean-Louis Comolli: 'Postscript: Hour of the Wolf

('Postface', Cahiers du Cinema 203, August 1968)

Behind the credits of Hour of the Wolf we hear the noise of a set being made ready for a shot - a black frame on which is written the title, Vargtimmen. A black screen in fact, an image (if one can so describe it) of total darkness before the first real, luminous images. But in this night before the film, soon to be driven out by the light of the film, nothing sleeps. Noises off, and we quickly realize that the preparations are complete, so that finally, at a given moment, when the order to shoot is given, film and light together occupy the entire space, the only space there is, the space of the frame, of the screen. A voice can be heard giving this order. Roll camera: the darkness vanishes from the screen, and in the twilight there appears the weary face of Liv Ullmann.

All this - night passing into day, darkness into an image, the innermost mystery of a film being made turning into the brilliant light which is the evidence of the film itself, cinema becoming the shot filmed and projected - all this lasts for ten seconds or so. Long enough to anchor the narrative in a kind of primordial night; long enough to make us feel, as the light and the first images appear, that we are waking out of a confused dream - waking into another dream?

Nights without light. Such a shadowy opening first of all matches, corresponds with the theme of twilight which the film develops. Elsewhere in this issue l Bergman defines 'the hour of the wolf' as the hour which in legend belongs to all those transformations into vampires and animal forms that are associated with the transformation of night into day and day into night: the moment when waking and sleeping merge into one, when there is no difference between them because nightmares make no distinction between one state or the other. These dawns without end (which extend into twilights) which keep appearing in the film had to be preceded, however briefly, by a real night.

Before light comes. However, beyond the thematic significance of this correspondence, the dark night of this beginning encompasses nothing more (that we are aware of) than the preparations for a shot. And not just any shot; indeed, this is the first shot of the film, the one we see as the film starts rolling.

The work on the set which leads to, produces (or at least we assume produces) and directly precedes this first shot is not shown to us (except for a few sounds picked up at random). As though it were in the nature of what prepares and indicates the making (and reproduction) of images by light that it should be and remain impervious to light. The concealment of that which allows something to be seen.

What we have, then, is the banal reality of any film (of any piece of exposed film), that it is all that remains to be seen from the work which leads up to its being seen.

Counterflow. If, however, Bergman decides to begin his film by reminding us that it came out of the making of a film, and if he identifies this period of gestation as a night from which, at a given moment, there issues forth a whole sequence of images, as something from within the process of representation which in one movement tilts into spectacle, it may be that this relationship of the film to its source is not so simple, nor devoid of mystery. Is this not confirmation that the film, even if it seems to flow naturally from its making, in fact not only completely obliterates it, but in a way chases it out, frees itself from it, somewhat in the way that a dream breaks free of the night which contrives it by giving it a light of its own, or of the impressions which shape it by creating a private logic and leading it down a road far from the beaten track?

The film unfolds like a dream in progress, in itself a kind of dream, resisting a predetermined course, switching direction at will. Which gives credence to the idea of the film as an independent object, freed at last from the constraints of narrative and form which, powerlessly, its 'author' would wish to impose on it: the film as a living organism; a fabrication, of course, but also something which in a sense fabricates itself.

Breaking point. One recalls that the interweaving narrative of Persona was framed by its beginning and its end - as in its fragmented centre - by the incongruous image of a reel of film passing through a projector and breaking up as it did so. The impression is that the film is 'in pain', cracking under the strain of the story, reacting against it. In Hour of the Wolf the impression is that the film, no sooner set in motion by the word 'Roll' f follows its own independent course; and by going back to the credit titles two-thirds of the way through, the film implies not that the dramatic continuity has been broken and the viewer awakened from his reverie, but rather that the film itself is imposing its own whims or its own secret logic on the ritual chronology of the projection process: rolled up in a loop, like dreams, the film begins a new cycle. But Bergman says that when he was shooting Hour of the Wolf he had the same idea as with Persona: to give the film a framing 'prologue' and 'epilogue' in which one would see Liv Ullmann confessing to Bergman's camera on the set of Hour of the Wolf. He adds at once that the film's power, its very nature, prevented him from following this plan. From which the only conclusion is that once it is set in motion, the film exists independently of Bergman's will, that it can resist such aesthetic considerations.

Dream dreamt. In this respect, Hour of the Wolf is the cinema in revolt, as was also the case in Persona. In both films everything happens as if from the very first shot the film has a life and a force of its own. At one moment fracturing its fiction (while simultaneously being fractured by it), at another giving it free rein, the chance to proliferate.

The structure of Hour of the Wolf is witness to the fact that at any point the film is stronger than its 'author', in that it is in a position to follow a logic, a sequence of events, which nobody could have determined, so inexplicable are they - nobody except perhaps the dream within the film.

The narrative proceeds along a very devious route of misconnections, starting from the passage of night into day as described above. Liv Ullmann is revealed, making her confession, confiding the story of her adventure as though she had reached the end of it. She talks about her husband's diary. This first narration (actually the second in relation to the introductory darkness) is soon 'illustrated' - a second narrative, this time peopled with 'characters', following on from the confession. This narrative proceeds up to the point when Liv Ullmann discovers her husband's diary and starts to read it. So there is a third narrative superimposed on the first two. Liv takes over from the images which have illustrated - going far beyond it - her initial confession. But her reading is in turn illustrated by scenes and paintings: a fourth 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, hitherto convergent and complementary (we don't know who is dreaming them), 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. The painter takes refuge in a forest, and dies - if he is not already dead, already a phantom conjured up in his companion's dreams.

Alone now (though not without the diary), Liv resumes her confession at the point where we left her at the start, in the same close-up, as if only a fraction of a second had elapsed between two close-ups of the same face and all remained to be said anew. How can this fraction of a second, which lasts a whole film, be expanded except in dream time? The film (if one assumes the film as being this first shot following the blacked out scene of the film being made, with Liv Ullmann talking to the camera which we know is there) has set about dreaming. In between two identical shots which ought to follow each other a whole dream is interpolated, with its cyclical returns to the same reference points (the diary, the castle), its feeding off itself, its reincarnations and metamorphoses of the dead into the living and of men into beasts. The film has become a dream and when we wake from it, it IS as if nothing had moved, except the dream.