A conscious follow-up to Persona, and much bolder in its willingness to shatter narrative conventions. Max Von Sydow plays a painter who's visions hound him to death. There's a bunch of autobiography here, and it's close to the surface. At a disturbing dinner party with some aristocrats, Von Sydow declares that any monomania rearing up as a result of his success gets chased away by the fundamental purposelessness of his vocation, of art. I'm sure Bergman is speaking for himself here. There is also an obsession with a past affair with a married woman which dominates the dream sequence in the last quarter of the film (Bergman had a fair few and was married six times). Finally Von Sydow brings up an incident in his brutal upbringing by a strict, abusive father, which feels lifted straight from Bergman's own memories.
But the heart of the film is the effect this schizophrenia has on his wife – through a near miraculous depth of sympathy she starts to see his ghosts. But she is 'whole', while he is irreparably broken. And it is these 'whole' people that reveal the story to us. Bergman's visualisation of the rich subconscious fantasies of a tortured artist are cinematic tricks, and he's insistent on this point. Liv Ullmann is interviewed by him, and the sounds of the film crew are layered over the beginning titles that tell us the providence of the story we are about to watch. We are very nearly always aware that this is a film we're watching – that there is a connection between the ghosts the characters see and the actors reacting to them on the screen. They are made of the same stuff.
Von Sydow is hardly a sympathetic character. The most disturbing fever dream in the film is him murdering a boy who teases him while he's fishing. A younger self taunts his trials and failures, a ghost of better might-have-beens, and Von Sydow crushes him under his fists. His marriage is sweet, but always haunted by the awareness that Ullmann ultimately bores and cloys him. She doesn't obsess him in the way his previous lovers do. The 'hour of the wolf' refers to the time of the night most likely for people to die or be born. Von Sydow is so terrified of his apparitions that he has to keep himself awake through it. But there's also a suggestion that he can't quite accept the yawning fact of his own inevitable death, or that his wife is pregnant and that he'll have to start taking responsibility for people other than himself. Sydow is still the child locked up in the cupboard by his father, tormented by phantoms of his own imagining. His tragedy is that he cannot grow up and gain mastery over his demons.