Skammen (Shame, 1968)
Ingmar Bergman, in one of his lesser known masterpieces, de-dramatizes a war by transferring all its tragedy to Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow and inevitably to his audience too.
The sixties have been probably the most productive decade of Ingmar Bergman’s career. At the same time this was his most dark artistic period, especially the second half of the decade that came right after his Silence of God trilogy (1961 – 1963) and Persona (1966). In 1967 Bergman extends this dark path and he directs his first war film entitled Skammen (Shame, 1968). The film was praised by the majority of film critics at that time but later it was forgotten and still remains one of the lesser known masterpieces of the Swedish auteur.
During an unnamed war, Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max von Sydow), a couple of musicians, retreat to a little rural island to farm. They both believe that they don’t have to participate to the conflict and they remain secluded to their new life. Despite the difficulties, their relationship is quite strong but there are some problems between them. Eva who has the strongest character between them and is more decisive wants children; on the other hand Jan who is quite fragile, distanced and sensitive believes that they are not needed. Their arguments will be immediately forgotten when the war will literally arrive to their doorstep. Despite the fact that they declare apolitical and they don’t take anyone’s side they will be soon accused for treason. Consequently they must pay that price to their neighbor and now colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand). This is an unconventional war of shameful experiences and forced personal decisions.
When Bergman started working on his idea of Shame he initially chose the title The War that was later changed to The Dreams of Shame which was the one that he followed during the production too. For that reason this is a war that is presented almost as a dream or as a dreary internal nightmare. Following his own previous experience of his nightmarish horror film Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf, 1968), Bergman uses again the same couple of artists – Ullmann and von Sydow – to experience the nightmare of war this time. The timing is also right since this was the year that the war in Vietnam was in its peak and a cultural and political revolution was spreading across Europe and partially in the USA.
As Bergman is still living in his Ingenting / Nothing Years he is projecting this nothingness into Shame and that unknown war too. He directs a war film that is extremely minimal and introvert for the genre. He offers nothing to glorify this war, there are no scenes that would convince or at least impress the audience about the cruelty, the wrongness or even the rightness of a war. Instead of that, everything works internally and probably this is what makes Shame one of the truest war films ever made. Bergman stays away from the front and focuses his interest on the people that are far away from the conflict. Despite that obvious distance, his heroes are slowly disintegrated and they are falling apart for no evident or clear reason. There is no expressed ideological struggle, no religious or territorial fight, no explanation for that gruesome war but still Eva and Jan have to pay for this.
They both believe that as artists they don’t have to take anyone’s side but even when they don’t do that, the others would decide for them. By living in this sheltered almost elegiac little island they remain pure and clean from any kind of propaganda but they are still responsible for their social alienation. Their sophisticated and theoretical approach to the war is not valid any more. Now they should actively defend themselves and apologize for something they didn’t do or believe, and this absurd unexplained fight becomes even more dreadful than a real combat. It is a psychological internal war that doesn’t follow any known tactic. Jan, by being Bergman’s alter ego, would break from the beginning because he is restrained and can’t handle any pressure. Eva should stand for both of them and follow a fated shameful path.
What is bleaker in this unique Bergman’s nihility is the fact that his heroes have no place to seek for help or support. They may believe that they are living in their own little paradise but this is exactly the contrary, the island – which is in fact Fårö – is their dystopia. By proving the absence of God in his previous trilogy, Bergman doesn’t give any chance to a divine intervention or at least a point of reliance on any kind of faith. Eva and Jan as musicians could rely on their art but they had to abandon it because it was needless during wartime and probably it can’t offer anything to anyone. Apart from their livestock, they have no one that they should take care of since they don’t have any children or relatives. They are simply nobodies.
Their whole existence is almost trivial. They are clearly complementary one to each other but they could also easily disappear without affecting anyone else’s life. Eva and Jan are expressing so forcefully their nothingness not for nihilistic reasons but because they are logically so insignificant. Shame presents an obscure world that has no glimpse of hope or positive thinking and by being on the verge of a war this could be a pure realistic feeling. The fact that is destroying even more the heroes is that they feel and probably are irresponsible for their horrific fate but they never did anything to prevent this exact fate. They will realize that by being detached from their reality didn’t make them immune to this upcoming catastrophe.
Shame is a film of internal disintegration and as any other Bergman work it is based on the power of the protagonists. Liv Ullmann’s presence dominates the picture and she was also the main point of reference in director’s life at that time. Shame is their third collaboration and for the first time Ullmann is not depicted as an idea or an alter ego of someone else. For the first time she is almost playing her true self. Her impressive beauty, as it is captured by Sven Nykvist’s camera, contains an impeccable fresh vividness which is juxtaposed with some extremely dangerously raw edges. Her framed appearance perfectly coincides with the heroine’s character. Eva is powerful almost despotic and she can be charming but authoritatively rigid at the same time. Eva adores Jan but subliminally she knows that she can’t really stand him. Unfortunately, the war will help her understand that she can’t abandon him as Jan seems almost impotent.
Max von Sydow portrays Jan as a ruler of his own little world in which he lives and breathes through his art without wanting to have any actual connection with reality. He truly loves and needs Eva because he is missing her rationality and she is also the only one who supports him. Jan would suddenly evolve under the fear of losing Eva. He must initially scatter himself into pieces before reconstructing his new personality but this would change him into ruthless and selfish, someone who Eva inevitably loathes. Shame proves that the real battles of the war don’t happen with guns. The verbal hints between the couple, the empty glances that they exchange, the fear of infidelity and the absence of touches could be lethal for their relationship and themselves. The real consequences of the war are depicted on Eva’s look of despair towards Jan when she realizes who he became.
On the technical level, Sven Nykvist’s cinematography seems a bit different from what he did in previous Bergman films. Shame doesn’t feel as a true black and white film because its predominant greyness is hiding powerful colors underneath. The texture of the picture could even work as a canvas to draw upon these hidden colors. It looks like an inverted image that had to turn gray in order to encapsulate a depressing nothingness. Also the image is so impressively lively which sometimes could fool that this is how a futile reality should seem. Theoretically Shame is a war film but apart from some graphic scenes, all the action is interiorized. Even when a cathartic scene is required by the viewer in order to detach him from the film, it doesn’t exist. Bergman wants to offer the same absurdity and chaotic experience that his heroes have to anyone who watches the film and by omitting the action he creates a characteristic introspective perspective of the war.
Shame is a distinctive work in Bergman’s filmography. His decision to de-dramatize a war transfers all its tragedy to his heroes and inevitably to the audience. It is a pure psychological experience because the externalization and the distance that a war usually has in the genre films now becomes a part of you. Even if there is no apparent enemy around you, you still must be prepared either to change before it is too late or to accept your moral fate and become the victim that you don’t want to be. The pitfall is that either decision would be as shameful as the other.