Shame (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

Shame (1968) is my fifteenth Ingmar Bergman film, but I was not prepared for such a bleak offering. Like many Bergman films, Shame takes place on an island, this time during a war that our protagonists, Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow), do not keep themselves informed. Their radio is broken, the war has been waging for far too long, and it broke apart the orchestra that the two played in. The two find themselves being pushed around by both sides, but if they know the politics that instigated the war, Bergman prefers that we do not. Many have seen parallels to the Vietnam War, but Bergman’s political agenda is rarely on display here (though the name of the couple suggests the innocence of their American namesake). Bergman’s war is a universal one, destroying those caught who are caught in the middle of it and showing that escapism is not akin to actually escaping.

Shame is the second of a trilogy in which Ullmann and von Sydow play a couple that grow disenchanted with each other. The first, Hour of the Wolf (1968), focused on the inner madness, but Shame prefers to examine how external circumstances can be just as defeating as anything festering inside. From the first scene, when Jan tells of a dream in which they were playing in the orchestra and didn’t have to deal with “all this,” we know that something is wrong. It’s curious, because the couple tends to get along. There are a few moments we can sense tension, such as when they begin to talk about the war or about having kids, but for the most part they enjoy each other’s company. The problem, of course, is that the war comes to them, as they are “liberated” by one side and then interrogated as traitors for being survivors of the prior invasion; it is impossible not to talk about the war. Their marriage is further troubled by Colonel Jacobi, who does not try to hide his lust for Eva. But how can the couple tell the man who freed them from captivity and gave them a working radio to leave them alone?

Shame’s greatest strength is its brutally honest depiction of both Jan and Eva. Eva becomes desperate and impatient, constantly in disagreement with Jan’s handling of delicate matters concerning the war, fed up with everything in the house always being broken and then by Jan’s fixation on their only working radio. Jan is influenced by the violence of those around him, driven to the brink of insanity by isolation, desperate to reassert himself as a loving husband. Bergman himself thought that the film’s first act does not set this up well. He thought that the couple is too calm and unworried at first. But then again, this is a Bergman film, a thematic sequel to Hour of the Wolf,and it made during a string of tragically existential films. Disagreements between Eva and Jan are indeed understated, but this works to the film’s advantage, setting up its devastating end but also refusing to give anything away. If anything, it is the abrupt jump from captivity back to the Rosenberg home that should have been expanded on. However, the scene in which Jan learns of Jacobi and Eva is masterfully acted by von Sydow, who plays the tragic flaw as a fatal mix between insanity and desperation, ingredients that continue to stir on the way to the almost apocalyptic final images. Perhaps it was the sheer power of the ending that made Bergman unsure of the beginning.

For all their specificity, it cannot help but seem our protagonists gradually change from what we want to be—an idyllic, calm individual in love, able to put his/her past away to concentrate on being happy—to a far more pessimistic vision of what we really are—spiteful and selfish beings, trying to avoid the far-too-common events that make us explode. Indeed, their actions, even the worst of them, while powerful, are never shocking. They reveal horrifying depths of which we know they, as humans, are more than capable. This is never demonstrated better than in the change of the characters’ dreams, each one revealing something quite telling about their sense of hope and meaning. Even at the end, Eva suggests a glimmer of hope despite everything that she has recently been through. They are caught between escapism in the film’s first half and acknowledgment in the second; either danger will sneak up on you and you become unable to help yourself or you are driven to your breaking point by surrounding insanity. Everyone, from the Rosenbergs to Jacobi to the soldiers themselves, struggle with this duality, looking for the middle-ground where they can be happy.

The only thing holding Shame back is its lack of formal rigor. Hour of the Wolf’s Expressionist elements revealed the distorted way in which von Sydow’s character viewed the world.  Actor interviews and peaks at the set in Passion of Anna (1969) illuminated the deconstructionist ambitions of that film.  Shame is the most straightforward of the trilogy, failing to reach the cinematic heights of his best work. Bergman never ventures too far outside of the box, almost constrained by his theatrical proficiency, and the result is a haunting film but not a transcendent one. Bergman constantly sought to push the boundaries of the cinema onward, narratively and formally, but Shame is a break from that intensity, great as it is.

Grade: A-


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