By Jeremy Carr.
Save for the broad categories of drama or comedy, Ingmar Bergman isn’t a name often associated with genre filmmaking. His 1968 feature, Hour of the Wolf, could possibly be categorized as a horror film — it surely has its horrific moments and images — but even there, the familiar tropes are tempered by elements more distinctly linked with Bergman’s prior and subsequent work, as something of a genre unto itself. The same caveat applies to Shame, also released in 1968. Bergman’s variation on the war film forgoes a sweeping depiction of warfare in favor of his more characteristic interest in the misery of a figurative common man, in this case, as he observes in a contemporary interview included on the Criterion Collection release of the film, a common man “as all hell breaks loose around him.” And whereas in many war films, and in the actual event of war, conventional notions of heroics are often charged to the victims and those who resist opposing influences, with Shame, even as its central subjects are wounded psychologically if not physically, that assumed, often straightforward sympathy is a little harder to come to ascribe.
Set during an interminable civil war, which has apparently been going on for some time but has not yet reached a debilitating breaking point, Shame is generally disinterested in the two contesting sides of the vague regional conflict. Neither grouping is ever presented with any degree of ideological clarity, and Bergman shelves the potential for partisan dissection and instead concentrates on the third parties who, he notes, “always suffer in a war.” Personifying this third party are two married artists already at odds (as Bergman couples so often are). Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow) are classical violinists who even wake in the morning in dramatically differing ways. She is quick on her feet, proceeding to the kitchen and getting washed for the day, while he is slow to stir, reading over his bedside newspaper, gazing out his window, fretting about a wisdom tooth, and mildly recalling his dreams (an action, it’s worth noting, that will be echoed by Eva in the end). Nevertheless, while there is preexisting tension, and the interpersonal edginess is only exasperated by the insidiousness to come, for now, Eva and Jan appear blissfully escapist and sometimes even playful.
Ullmann and von Sydow are at their most attractive in Shame, despite the anxiety, and here on their remote island retreat, where they have been willfully isolated for four years, it is still initially a world of berries, fresh fish, summer cottages, and wine in the Swedish sunshine. Even in a non-wartime setting, though, Bergman is masterful at planting the seeds of progressively budding friction. Eva and Jan are genial on the surface, with friends and frequently when it’s just the two of them, but the signs of latent unease are manifest in everything from her derisive glares to his emotional instability, crouching on the stairs, for example, and sobbing for no apparent reason. They had split up once before and he, it seems, had his fair share of dalliances in the meantime, something she associates with their current inability to have a child. But still, their early troubles don’t have the same gravity felt elsewhere in Bergman’s work. It’s almost like they, and Bergman, are going through the marital motions, establishing an animosity that is more functional than truly problematic. Indeed, it seems part of the reason for their intermittent quarreling is that, for the moment, they simply have nothing better to concern themselves with.
While their often-voiced aggravations will appear trivial compared to what rages in their periphery, the full force of the war has yet to hit home. The scenic beauty of Bergman’s beloved Fårö is a far cry from the fields, deserts, or city streets normally seen assailed by invading forces (although it does suggest a certain grave solemnity, this also generated by prior Bergman work as much as anything else). The tranquility is deceptive, though, as Michael Sragow notes in his Criterion essay on Shame. A Rosenberg neighbor speaks of “our side,” “the other side,” and “the enemy,” but the anomalous presence of the war, its ambiguous factions and causes, are at first only represented by discordant sounds on the soundtrack, the connotations of gunfire and speech making. Then there are small signs of impending invasion: ominous church bells, mysterious phone calls, military transports on a rural road, soldiers on a ferry. The escalation is steady, incremental. Jets soar overhead, piercing and thunderous, and blinding flashes of light give way to a rain of fire. Bergman’s effects are low-key but effectively intense, intense enough to convey just how unprepared the Rosenbergs are for the terror to come. “The relentless, Kafkaesque backdrop of a never-ending war puts a troubled marriage into stark relief,” writes Sragow, “dramatizing the end of fellow feeling and the dehumanization of death.”
As modest as it may be, however, Shame’s actual illustration of war is inordinately powerful. There are deafening sounds of unrelenting bombardment and periods of noiseless reflection, as Ullmann and von Sydow exchange enigmatic expressions and look over the destruction. After one particularly brutal assault, Bergman moves in close for an intimate conversation between Eva and Jan, ostensibly about music but also serving a visual and topical reprieve. It doesn’t last. Bergman is especially sensitive to the ravages of war after the fact, with pillars of smoke and a landscape in ruins, littered with burned down buildings and strewn with bodies (Eva squats over a lifeless small child in one notably haunting sequence). It is a hellscape beyond the most apocalyptic visions related with Bergman. Asked why Shame doesn’t integrate a score, Bergman observed, “The music’s over and done with,” suggesting a certain finality that comes across as the film nears its downbeat conclusion.
Following the event of a downed aircraft, an aggressive camera crew confronts Jan and Eva, who witnessed the incident. Led by a belligerent interviewer (played by I Am Curious—Yellow  and Blue  director Vilgot Sjöman), the group of zealous patriots speak of liberation, but their manipulation and exploitation are absurdly prodigious. As Jan falls to the ground, overcome with exhaustion, the shouts of “Keep rolling! Get him passing out” testify to the depravity. “But it’s just hollow rhetoric,” notes Sragow. “The war has dragged on so long that the couple find it impossible to choose between, or sometimes even to recognize, the sides.” More overwhelming is the confusion as Eva and Jan are rounded up in a schoolhouse, packed together with others who share in their terrified bewilderment. Working with Sven Nykvist, in their eighth feature together, Bergman conveys with hand-held panic the unnerved impression of agonizing disorder. Elsewhere, long takes coolly observe what is taking place, an uninterrupted consideration of this dystopic drama.
Jan and Eva welcome the benefits of some favoritism, bestowed upon them by their supposed friend Jacobi, played by a remarkably venomous Gunnar Björnstrand, but his favors go too far and the situation disintegrates into pathetic desperation, fear, and intimidation. Jacobi does present an interesting other side to Bergman’s war-related supposition, though. We see where Jan and Eva represent the apolitical and impartial, but what of those who virulently take sides, choosing one cause over another? Jacobi is the worst-case scenario of what man is capable of, abusing his power to unleash indignity, deceit, cruelty, and the senseless demolition of the Rosenberg home. The war grows irrational and incomprehensible. Jan and Eva speak of love and art and life, classic Bergman deliberations that the war consumes, reduces, and debases. Days and weeks blur. The fighting and suffering take a grueling toll. The imagery is searing, faces are sapped and scarred, despairing. Like everyone else, Eva and Jan suffer the pangs of hunger and thirst and insanity. Suicides are slow and casual, as indifferent as the pushing aside of floating corpses that impede the progress of a small boat as it makes its way across the sea.
Bergman was anxiously aware of the perils of “coldness” and “indifference,” says Liv Ullmann in a 2018 Criterion interview. She speaks of his fearing a “lack of contact with other people.” That fear would be routinely alleviated by Bergman’s loyal group of collaborators — “the magic circle that surrounds him,” according to the narrator of a documentary on the Criterion disc. Considering Persona (1966), just before Shame, Hour of the Wolf, and The Passion of Anna (1969), just after, this includes many who were working in rare form around the same time Bergman was himself in an exceptional groove (even if it wasn’t wholly recognized at the time). Originally titled “The War,” reinforcing the symbolic generality of the material, Shame is set in the early 1970s and its allusions to the concurrent Vietnam War weren’t lost on anyone. Bergman, in fact, said he’d be ashamed if the film weren’t attuned to what was taking place at the time. But the subject of what one would or wouldn’t do when threatened with violence, the themes of dogmatic discord, guilt and innocence, had been with Bergman since World War II, when he first considered the idea of resistance in face of physical and psychological influence. Upon its release, there were occasional criticisms about how detailed and explicit Shame should have been with regards to its Vietnam insinuations, but too much specificity would have restricted the film. Just because it was the current conflict doesn’t mean it was the only war Bergman was concerned with, and Shame’s potent, enduring applicability is in large part based on its universal, timeless representation. Historical specifics would have pigeonholed and arguably diminished its lasting impact. War changes. It changes locations and eras, victors and victims. Shame remains a constant. Or at least it should.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.