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Shame (Skammen)

by Glenn Erickson Jan 26, 2019

War no longer recognizes ‘innocent bystanders’: a married couple seeks to sidestep ‘civil disturbances’ by relocating to a rural island, only for the war to descend on them from all sides. Forget escapist post-apocalyptic fantasies: Ingmar Bergman demonstrates how the terror of war obliterates human values at the personal level. Human trust and morals fall fast under pressure — atom bombs aren’t needed to return us to the stone age of dog-eat-dog. Bergman stages impressive large-scale ‘action’ scenes, yet always relates the terror without to psychological traumas within. It’s one of the director’s most affecting films.


Shame (Skammen)
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 961
1968 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 103 min. / Skammen) / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date February 5, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Sigge Fürst, Gunnar Bjürnstrand, Birgitta Valberg.
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Film Editor: Ulla Ryghe
Produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg
Written and Directed by
Ingmar Bergman

 

Ingmar Bergman all but defined the European art film, starting in the middle 1950s when he began looking inward at the psychology of his characters. Whether portrayed as mild self-reflection, ominous dreams or as an out & out mental breakdown, Bergman’s focus served to create a personal cinema that didn’t need huge production resources. He also proved that theatrical techniques worked on film as well, in lengthy monologue scenes, often in unbroken close-up. The standard read of Bergman’s middle-1960s films holds a vague intellectual sickness responsible for the psychic anguish of his main characters.

 

When the outside world intruded, Bergman sometimes used images of war. Photos of war-related atrocities in far countries or from the past created unease in Persona. The alienated state of the women in The Silence is counterpointed by a seemingly endless parade of military vehicles in the streets, alluding to an unspoken threat from without. Something’s happening all around, but we don’t know what it is. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, did ordinary citizens do their best to look the other way, as if it were all none of their business?

Bergman must have been influenced by news of the war in Vietnam, for in  Shame (Skammen) he exits his introspection-cocoon to show that the modern world holds real things to fear, not just an interior malaise. The husband and wife in Shame need no excuses to suffer nervous breakdowns, as they’re caught in the path of a real war. They discover that there’s nothing uplifting about being a civilian in a war zone — the experience doesn’t inspire them to access hidden moral reserves; they don’t become stronger. One of the best movies ever about what war really means, Shame is another in a string of great Ingmar Bergman efforts.

 

When armed conflict threatened, concert musicians Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow) moved to a small farm on an island, to wait for the unpleasantness to blow over. They bicker and argue — Jan is ill-prepared and indecisive — yet Eva dreams about finally starting a family. Nothing prepares them for the arrival of  rebel paratroops and nationalist defenders. Air strikes blow up neighboring farms. During a failed attempt to flee they encounter many dead bodies, including children. Paratroops accuse them of killing a pilot who had to bail out. A propaganda unit shoves a camera in their terrified faces and then departs. They’re then picked up and terrorized by government troops, and accused of traitorous collaboration. Their former mayor Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand) is now the Colonel in charge of punishing collaborators, and as he knows the Rosenbergs personally he sends them home. But conditions do not improve. Unhinged by the instability of his position in the now-lawless province, Jacobi needs friends. He ‘buys’ the Rosenbergs with gifts and liquor, and then makes moves on Eva with the unspoken implication that he’s entitled. He saved their lives, after all. Some ruthless partisans arrive as well. Eva and Jan’s personalities take a beating under the psychic pressure. Each betrays the other in different ways, until their values and identities are lost.

An excellent anti-war movie, Shame is  a call for the citizens of prosperous, reasonably secure countries to consider the political realities of warfare: we’re not immune to the awful things suffered by the unfortunate foreigners we see on our TV news. We too can be massacred by the thousands in actions big and small. Nothing about the show is dated: messy civil breakdowns, uprisings, even civil war can happen here in America — it was possible in the riots and assassinations of the 1960s and it seems even more possible now. Ingmar Bergman’s Eva and Jan brood and fuss, but they don’t have obvious flaws that make them stand out as a couple in trouble. They share a harmonious profession, in fact. But the events that overtake them are as relentless and unfeeling as any of the ‘existential’ maladies that cripple other Bergman protagonists. The couple has responded to civic instability with what they think is prudent caution — they’ve just run away to a place they think will be safe, to sit out any inconvenient unpleasantness. As with most modern middle class folk, Rule #1 is the avoidance of unpleasantness. Had the Rosenbergs chosen another rural island, they might have achieved their goal of being left alone. They instead discover firsthand what it is like to be a helpless Asian or African peasant. Their complacency is rudely replaced with mortal fear, as their entire island district is overrun by troops. Daily life becomes an unending series of Kafka-like violent events.

 

By Bergman standards Shame is a big production packed with big-scale action movie content. The war is represented subjectively as the Rosenbergs are terrorized by fast-flying jets and rocked by endless bomb explosions. Their contact with ground troops is disturbingly modern — instead of being shot or raped, the Rosenbergs are pushed in front of a television camera for interviews. Their confused words are later over-dubbed with rebel propaganda denouncing the government. When they’re arrested as hostile collaborators, other prisoners are being killed without any evidence at all. The fact that the altered newsreel is clearly faked doesn’t help them. There is no logic in the blind terror of war.

The Rosenbergs consider themselves apolitical, which Bergman translates as complacent — people that want no stake in politics yet claim the right of security and comfort in their personal lives:  Bad Things happening to other people is not their problem.  One’s entire energy is devoted to not losing one’s privileges, comfort and status. Confronted by mindless death, Eva and Jan freely accept the protective favoritism of Colonel Jacobi, who ingratiates himself with gifts of food and promises of an end to official harassment. Even when faced by Jacobi’s implied, unpleasant interest in Eva, the Rosenbergs are too frightened to offer direct resistance. Eva eventually gives in to Jacobi, almost out of contempt for Jan’s lack of decisiveness. In a later, terrible scene, vengeful troops prompt Jan to participate in an atrocious killing — which he does, obviously channeling his jealousy and spite. Jan and Eva become strangers to one another, emotional enemies.

 

The horror of Shame is ease by which moral restraints are destroyed. One doesn’t have to be a guilty liberal to ask, ‘what would I do in their place?’  Every nightly news shows testimony from officials and victims shocked that foreign terrorists do such terrible things, when the reasons why should be obvious. It’s the effect of living under unjust, unstable, terrorized conditions. Domestic terrorists kill with much less provocation, imagining themselves to be oppressed victims, not spoiled psychotics. Modern society knows moral outrage, but not moral restraint.

That’s perhaps the meaning behind the title Shame: once one’s personal moral line is crossed there’s no turning back. After being forced to execute a man, Jan will find that he’s capable of killing in cold blood, for simple expedience. Eva is drunk when she gives in to Jacobi’s insistent advances, yet her actions are entirely voluntary. Jan shares the guilt, as he does nothing when Jacobi entreats Eva to kiss him. It’s an insoluble moral problem: it makes sense to give Jacobi what he wants, as the man could have them both shot. But the damage to the Rosenbergs is significant; their special relationship is forever changed. Not long before, the aspiring future mother encountered dead babies in the road. What does it matter what one does in a world gone mad?

 

As can be expected, Eva’s ‘sacrifice’ comes to naught — the Rosenbergs don’t realize that Colonel Jacobi is having his own nervous breakdown, and the arrival of the partisans brings another round of awful killing. Jan and Eva must take part in that as well. Franz Kafka would understand the situation immediately. For ordinary civilians most any choice in war can lead straight to an irrational death — choosing a side, staying neutral, being active, being passive. For much of their ordeal, Jan and Eva remain numb, in endurance mode.

Using no cinematic tricks or games of ambiguity, Shame can afford to be direct and ruthless with its imagery. The Rosenbergs stay together out of simple survival. They stagger through the last reels, with Jan shutting out everything he sees and Eva becoming more morose with each new misery. They at last elect to leave their island ‘sanctuary’ in a rowboat with some other refugees, only to end up in a naked little wooden island, in a sea filled with floating bodies. With this simple but powerful image, the unresolved ending of a Bergman film for once feels entirely right. Everything is like a dream, thinks Eva, but her complacent everyday reality was a dream as well.


The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Shame (Skammen) presents Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on war in a flawless encoding. The show has no music and instead employs an absorbing soundtrack of natural sounds and the cacophony of warfare. Behind the titles is heard a montage of military radio chatter and some interesting feedback noises that for a moment sounds like modern electronic music.

 

Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is left at its original flat aspect ratio. A 2004 MGM DVD raised a ruckus by matting the show to 1:66, which it was how it was often shown in the U.S., with the subtitles placed high in the frame to facilitate the widescreen matte. Nykvist’s shots of jets flying low over the Rosenberg farm are as impactful as similar scenes in American action pictures: Bergman received cooperation from the Swedish Air force, but not the Navy. The confusing blasts of light during the nighttime bombing raid are spectacular as well. But the feeling imparted is subjective terror, not escapist thrills.

Abbey Lustgarten’s extras reach for prime resource material and find great interviews with Bergman from 1968. A long TV documentary from the same year takes the ‘great filmmaker’ attitude to an annoying extreme, but its Bergman clips are equally excellent. The new items are a thoughtful interview piece with Liv Ullmann, where she talks about her ‘Faro Island’ years as Bergman’s lover and muse, and a very good essay by Michael Sragow, in the illustrated fold-out insert.

Shame is not ‘liberal defeatism,’ or pacifist message-making. A practical takeaway lesson might be that the first rule of war is to always make sure that it happens on somebody else’s home ground. It’s the kind of movie I once showed my kids as an antidote to the endless TV and movie propaganda celebrating power and guns, and reducing all problems to an opposition of Good (us) and Evil (them). Reality is far uglier. When my kids were young we endured several days of civil unrest in Los Angeles, when I could see riot fires in all four directions. Had we called for help, no police would have responded. We pulled the blinds, locked the doors and hunkered down in our houses. I think Bergman’s vision is correct: had armed men arbitrarily chose our house to attack, would any of our neighbors risk themselves to come to our aid?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Shame (Skammen)
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interviews with director Ingmar Bergman and a brief excerpt from a press conference for the film, recorded in 1967 and ’68 for Swedish television; New interview with actor Liv Ullmann; An Introduction to Ingmar Bergman, a 1968 documentary made during the film’s production, featuring an extensive interview with Bergman; insert essay by critic Michael Sragow.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 24, 2019
(5915sham)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.