48:e festivalen 24 jan - 2 feb, 2025

von Trotta: “I’m a major admirer of Bergman”

Legendary film maker Margarethe von Trotta was asked to pick her favorite Bergman film. The choice fell on Hour of the Wolf. Here she explains why.

48:e festivalen
24 Jan -
2 Feb, 2025

Hour of the Wolf
Margarethe von Trotta

– As a young student, I was a big fan of E.T.A. Hoffmann, a very idiosyncratic German Romantic writer. Sometimes I even skipped my classes because I simply couldn’t get myself to put down a book of his stories. Earlier, in Paris in the late 1950s, I had discovered the movie “The Seventh Seal,” which shook me to the core and turned me into a major admirer of Ingmar Bergman. It was only many years later that I saw “Hour of the Wolf” and sensed an affinity between it and the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann.

In the early 1960s, young directors in Germany had rebelled against the old guard of established filmmakers with the slogan: Grandpa’s movies are dead. The so-called “Young German Film“ was born, with Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff and Edgar Reitz leading the way. It was a veritable revolution, just like the “Nouvelle Vague” in France had been before it. Since all eyes were now on the young rebels, Ingmar Bergman’s films were somewhat sidelined. And then, in 1968, the movement became politicized: We wanted to change the world – Germany, that is – and, soon enough, some were even willing to use violent means to do so.

As far as I know, “Hour of the Wolf,” which was shot in 1967, wasn’t an instant success in Sweden either – and maybe for the same reasons. At the time, everything was about political awareness, not self-reflection. Only “Persona” became and remains Bergman’s recognized masterpiece, eclipsing the movies he made right afterwards in many people’s memories.

Since the Goteborg Film Festival asked me to present a movie for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, I chose this one, because of the affinity between it and E.T.A. Hoffmann. I know that Bergman read Hoffmann’s work – in German, even – and I think that in this movie he was trying to give shape to his nightmares. His choice of the title alone, “Vargtimmen” – the time between night and daybreak, which is rife with fear and obsessive thoughts for many people who suffer from insomnia – gives an idea of how he intended the movie to be read and understood.

For years, I had trouble sleeping because my dead mother would appear in my dreams wanting to kill me, even though in life she had been an exceptionally loving mother. I would only manage to shake off my fears and finally fall asleep when the blackbirds’ early song announced the break of dawn. In “Hour of the Wolf,” this excruciating, uninvited wakefulness plagues Max von Sydow, alias Johan Borg, and his wife Alma keeps vigil with him, even though she can barely keep her eyes open from exhaustion. She wants to protect him from his demons.

Early on in the film, Max von Sydow shows Liv Ullmann how long a minute lasts on his watch. We see the time pass – or rather, stand still, it seems – on Liv’s face, and this long lingering on her face already gives us an idea of what the story will demand of her and of us. In the story from his childhood, in which he, Johan Borg – Ingmar as a boy – was locked in a dark closet, scared half to death, he describes horrors experienced early on in life. E.T.A. Hoffman calls them “noctures.”

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann were living together when the movie was shot. I suspect it was an important – and happy – time for them both. Even so, he suffered from insomnia. And jealousy. Jealousy also plays a role in the film, as does humiliation – a theme that recurs frequently in Bergman’s cinematic oeuvre from the start. The climax comes when Borg meets his apparently dead former lover, who suddenly comes back to life, forcibly pulls him to her and sinks her teeth into him. Passion and annihilation. The residents of the castle, the demons referred to as the cannibals, laugh derisively.

Who isn’t familiar with those nightmares in which you are laid bare and helplessly exposed to the ridicule of others? Undoubtedly this is something that affects artists in particular; it is material they can exploit in order to create. Exploit to the point of exhaustion. Can you drive away your fears by naming them? These are questions I asked myself while watching the movie. When, haunted by my dead mother’s nightly persecutions, I finally went to see a psychoanalyst because I thought I was going crazy, after a few sessions she sent me home with the following advice: “Talk about everything you’ve told me here in your films. That will be your therapy.” In “Torquato Tasso” Goethe wrote: “Where in their anguish other men fall silent, a god gave me the power to speak my pain.” Bergman might well have said the same of himself.

One of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novellas is called “The Devil’s Elixirs.” In it, a monk encounters his doppelgänger, a paragon of depravity. The two men look at each other as though seeing themselves in a mirror and, soon they no longer know which of them is the good one and which the bad. At one point in “Hour of the Wolf” Borg says: “The mirror is shattered, but what do the shards reflect?” Which of the two doppelgängers remains reflected in them?
Johan Borg, the artist in the movie, loses touch with the real world. Bergman, on the other hand, was able to save himself by continuing to make movies.

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