The Trials of Wartime in Ingmar Bergman’s SHAME (’68)


Originally published on FilmStruck

The admiring gaze of the aesthete, when aimed at the filmography of Ingmar Bergman, naturally lunges upon THE SEVENTH SEAL (’57), or PERSONA (’66), two of his most abstract and abstruse works of primordially imagistic art. But many of Bergman’s greatest and most emotionally demanding works are visceral feats of unadorned realism — works of interpersonal bitterness and vulnerability. With the nether reaches of human misery his volatile subject, Bergman’s camera maintained a crisply measured distance, gracefully imposing an angular theatrical dramaturgy on the material. Out of this strain comes SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (’73), AUTUMN SONATA (’78), THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (’61), and numerous other masterworks.

Bergman’s SHAME, from 1968, is an under-discussed piece of work occupying this dramatically embattled terrain. The reasons for its obscurity are hard to come by — my supposition is that ‘war movie’ genre expectations inevitably minimize what the film is really up to. SHAME is certainly about war, but not in terms of soldiers, politics, or in the ins and outs of combat. Rather, it is about war as an unwelcome fact in the lives of two nonparticipants, a husband and wife played by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. As Jan and Eva Rosenberg, two former violinists, Ullman and von Sydow comprise one of Bergman’s great tempestuous married couples. Neutral and non-partisan to a dissonant fault (their coping mechanism seems to be merely to carry on as if the conflict is not happening), Jan and Eva are functionally aligned. Together they work a small farm, and are mutually committed to the persistence of their rustic, whittled-down way of life.

However, Jan and Eva’s teamwork in clearing the practical hurdles of farmhouse upkeep belies the fact that an unfathomable rift has grown between them, no doubt exacerbated by the bludgeoning warfare that haunts the periphery of their lives. Where Eva is strong-willed and adaptable to the travails of wartime, Jan slips helplessly into pained reminiscence and nervous collapse. There are a number of piquant moments served up by Bergman to articulate this pained relationship. The reluctance of Jan to shoot one of their chickens serves as an illuminating source of contention between the two, while an expertly timed formalist flourish accentuates Eva’s expression of fraught disbelief in response to Jan’s admission that he is not a determinist, and that perhaps he will have outgrown his selfishness in the weeks or years to come.

Indeed, determinism is of the utmost importance to SHAME, which seems fixated on the question of whether any relationship can remain intact in response to civil war. Are Jan and Eva foredoomed to failure? While the experiential panic of bombs and artillery-fire is one dimension of warfare, the issue is reframed entirely by the introduction of one Colonel Jacobi, played to perfection by Gunnar Björnstrand. For Jacobi embodies military administrative authority, and it is his intrusion into the lives of Jan and Eva that expedites their ruin. The horror of chaos has given way to the horror of ruthlessly exercised power.

As FilmStruck has so justifiably decreed, Bergman, in honor of his centennial, is the Director of the Century, and now is an ideal time to experience his under-canonized works. As you make your way through the exhaustive collection of Bergman treasures that FilmStruck has assembled, please keep SHAME in mind. It is, for my money, his most powerful film of the 60’s, a blistering work to presage his tortured output of the 70s.