Ingmar Bergman: Shame (1968) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
25Jan/110

Ingmar Bergman: Shame (1968)

Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYThere's an old expression French director Francois Truffaut made about war movies that gets used every single time a supposedly important war film comes along that bucks the trends of normal guts 'n glory fightin' pictures.  He said that films against war cannot really convey the appropriate anti-war message because of the inherent excitement of filming and portraying battle.  No matter what the director does the audience is going to get caught up in the emotion of battle and forget about any message portrayed on-screen.

As much as I like Truffaut, I don't particularly agree with that statement.  It implies that the audience is incapable of grasping concepts beyond the immediate visual and auditory queues that are onscreen and if there's anything audience's have proven over the years is that they're certainly capable of grasping subtlety.  It's not as common as I would like but it happens.  Truffaut's reasoning refers more to films like Midway or The Green Berets and less films like today's Ingmar Bergman film Shame, a film that is interested in war and battle but more the after effects than the fighting itself.

Shame is a war film in the way that Dr. Strangelove is a war film.  Both are concerned with the effects of war and less the actual fighting.  There is a lot more actual carnage to be witnessed in Shame but that is because it's more concerned with the lives of people who are caught in the middle of warring factions.  It's not concerned with who is fighting who or even who the main characters in Shame support.  Bergman is just making the point that war does nothing but bring out the ugliest side of everyone and that there is no "side of the angels" - just people left to rot and die once idealism fades.

Bergman got the idea for Shame after he was through with Persona and while he was still working on Hour of the Wolf.  His exact motivations for making the film are still fairly uncertain, even to the man himself.  In one possible inspiration he may have been upset that people interpreted Persona as a cry against the Vietnam was (whether it was or not is irrelevant, he didn't like the interpretation when brought up).  In another he saw the world on the brink of war yet again and wanted to show how badly the world was torn asunder based on his views on World War II.

Shame makes the point many times that "good" or "bad" means nothing in war when the goal is to dehumanize anyone who stands in your way.

Regardless of his initial inspiration, Shame is unsparingly harsh on the way that war affects personal relationships, the country, and common decency.  Bergman is a lot more straightforward about this point than with his previous films.  There's not as much room for interpretation with Shame as there is with the psychological puzzling of Persona and Hour of the Wolf and, going along with that, Shame isn't nearly as experimental.  But that's part of Bergman's point, war is horrible - why should we debate over it?

Our guides through the madness of Shame are Eva and Jan Rosenberg, played by Bergman regulars Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow.  They live a quiet, nearly hermit-like existence on a small unnamed island with their crops and their chickens.  They used to be musicians in a symphony many years ago but now are trying to avoid an unnamed threat to their isolation.  There are clues dropped here and there about the war - bombed out debris on the side of the road, a perpetually nonfunctional radio, caravans being led through the countryside carrying large machines - but Bergman is careful not to specifically say what is going on in the opening act.

Eva and Jan know little.  The town isn't exactly a font of information and Jan has been stymieing Eva's attempts to get more information for some time.  They visit elderly friends who are dressing up in their old soldier uniforms but no one seems to know why anyone is fighting anymore.  Suddenly the Rosenberg's are thrust into the middle of a battle that takes place over their home.  Paratroopers descend on their property and then people from the other side show up to try and find them.  Or are the paratroopers from the other side and the "friendly" side shows up to find them?  It's hard to say.

I've seen Shame four times and each time I could make the case that the troops that humiliate Eva on TV are the enemies or allies (which, as part of Bergman's point, doesn't really matter).

It's at this point that the humiliations, a Bergman trademark, pile in on the Rosenbergs.  They are threatened by supposedly friendly troops, then Eva is forced to give a political statement in front of a camera by threatening forces.  They're taken captive because of the statement and tried as criminals, but released partly because of their innocence and partly because of some sexual favors that Eva provides.  Eva tries to stay strong, but Jan slowly disintegrates and this actually strengthens his resolve to kill.  The man that could not kill a chicken in the beginning can kill a man in cold blood at the end.  These are just a handful of the torments that they go through and the changes they experience throughout Shame and they have no one to blame but war.

The incidents and images are striking, particularly the hellish interview that Eva is forced to give, but more interest is generated in the way this affects Eva and Jan's relationship.  Things are clearly strained when the film opens as Jan wants to stay shielded from the world by Eva wants to rejoin everyone and have a child.  Events make their situation worse to the point where Eva's sexual favors may be a way to wound Jan as well as help their situation.  Then Jan's "revenge" hinges on if he saw the act or not and leads to a cruel bit of irony suffered by the man Eva slept with.

Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow are, as always, stunning.  Their pairing didn't work quite as well in Hour of the Wolf because it felt like a riff on common Bergman characters but the couple in Shame is pulled apart by entirely differnet forces.  It's never clear if they would have made it as a couple without the war (in some ways the stress forced them to rely on one another more) but their dynamic is a lot more interesting than in some of Bergman's other films.  There are a few notable supporting roles, such as the great Gunnar Bjornstrand as the Colonel Eva sleeps with, but their faces fade in and out from the nightmare of war.

The war may have hastened Eva and Jan's decline but it's never clear that they were really devoted from the start.

All the while Bergman keeps us just as confused as his characters.  We never see any of the fighting directly, just an explosion here and some fires there.  The Rosenberg's are arriving at each location just as the fires are beginning to spread uncontrollably.  He is masterful at finding the most horrific use of each of his settings, most notably a former school where the "good" side is torturing and interrogating it's own citizens.  If this feels a bit too familiar to our own times then it should, war never really changes.

I'm a fan of Shame, but I have to admit that it leaves me a little cold.  By removing some of the more subjective elements of his directorial style Bergman makes a film that is ruthlessly straightforward in it's condemnation of war but is less interesting to sit through.  A more subjective/interpretative Bergman isn't always superior (as you'll see when I go through the perplexing The Passion of Anna in a couple of weeks) but in the case of Shame the one note he plays over and over almost wears thin by the time the painful final monologue from Eva urges the Rosenberg's out to sea.

The next few weeks for my Bergman retrospective include films that I was finally able to acquire.  I'll be jumping back in time a bit to look at All These Women (apparently Bergman's worst film), then taking a look at one of Bergman's many television movies with The Rite before jumping back into his theatrical endeavors with The Passion of Anna.  It should be an interesting few weeks, so I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you all soon.

The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Shame (1968)
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow.

Posted by Andrew

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