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.

Misery and Mysticism in Ingmar Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER

Originally published on FilmStruck

For the tenderfoot cinephile, FANNY AND ALEXANDER (’82) might stand as an indomitable work whose colossal runtime casts an intimidating shadow – 188 minutes in its original theatrical release, 312 minutes as a multi-part TV miniseries (both generously available on FilmStruck with an amplitude of special features). Upon sitting down and watching the film, these perceptions change within minutes, eradicated entirely upon the beguiling tow of the grim reaper’s scythe, witnessed by the young Alexander in prefatory daydream. Where Ingmar Bergman’s earlier miniseries SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (’73) is as a thicket of barbed wire, a gauntlet to be suffered and survived, FANNY AND ALEXANDER is a filigreed invitation to a jubilant family feast where dark forces gather in-between courses. Brushing up against the merriment are crisscrosses of interfamilial dispute, the palpable threat of impending misfortune, the commingling of phantoms – and yet the atrium that Bergman has erected to receive the vagrant viewer into this world of haunts and wonders could not glow with greater warmth.

It is 1907 in Uppsala, Sweden, and the prosperous Ekdahl family has assembled for the annual series of Christmas commitments, strictly regimented but nonetheless joyous, liberating. Oscar Ekdahl and his wife Emilie (Allan Edwall and Ewa Fröling, respectively) have staged a nativity pageant at the reasonably successful family theater, a bulwark of creative communion where the imaginations of their children Fanny and Alexander have been nourished practically from birth. Scuttle on from there to the Christmas dinner, the film’s festive frontispiece, where we come to know Oskar’s two brothers – the despairing Carl, the philandering Gustav Adolf – as well as their mother Helena. Helena, magisterially incarnated by grand dame of the Swedish stage Gunn Wållgren, is the matriarchal wellspring of the family’s good fortune, a one-time successful actress who has played countless roles both in life and in art (it is no wonder that Ingrid Bergman was originally slated for the role). She has now settled into a grandmotherly equanimity, where comfort and tenacity are equally ensconced. In orbit around her essential goodness, the family and servants happily carouse. Meanwhile, the richest ornamentation abounds — chandeliers glitter, the upholstery blazes a convivial red, candles and clock faces are everywhere adorned. It is a singular fantasia that Bergman conjures here.

Naturally, this decorative world soon plunges into crisis. Bergman alchemizes the archetypal family saga of 19th century literature – fraught with social stations lost and regained, the hovering reality of Europe’s ethnic and religious caste system, and a Shakespearean regard for death and destiny writ large in ancestral blood – with his unflinching eye for psychological anguish and interstitial misery. Yes, the beloved Oskar may perish under the burden of the role of Hamlet’s ghost, to be almost immediately replaced by his punishing Lutheran antithesis, Bishop Edvard Vergérus (played to stone-hearted perfection by Jan Malmsjö) – but who is Bergman to shy away from such durable narrative contrivances? He breathes new life into them, in concert with his formidable cast, dilating familiar scenes of high literary resonance into vaporous mysteries of performance embellished by cinematic subtlety. Every time the camera zooms, a soul is excavated, a demon exorcized, an opaque surface splinters into shards.

It is the tendency of Bergman aficionados to credit FANNY AND ALEXANDER’s greatness to its autobiographical overtones. It paints a pretty picture – Bergman reinventing his past from the perspective of the young Alexander, whose pull towards fantasy and make-believe sets him at odds with the ascetic bishop, who believes the mind should be evacuated of all but the most antiseptic religious virtues. But Bergman’s own comments throw something of a wrench into this interpretation: “It has been suggested…that FANNY AND ALEXANDER portrays my childhood, and that 12-year-old Alexander is my alter-ego. But this is not quite true. FANNY AND ALEXANDER is a story, the chronicle of a middle-class, perhaps upper-middle-class family sticking closely together…There’s a lot of me in the Bishop, rather than in Alexander. He is haunted by his own devils.” This multiplicity of self-representation is part and parcel of Bergman’s mastery, his ability (or compulsion?) to wage war against himself. Alexander’s great throw-down with his stringent stepfather provides the film’s most concentrated locus of dramatic conflict as the inheritor of the Ekdahl theatrical imagination locks eyes with the walking repudiation of artifice, the anemic embodiment of flagellating guilt. Bergman himself mans both sides of the chessboard.

FANNY AND ALEXANDER, finally, is one of the great late-career works, an absorption of countless influences into what the director himself rightly deemed a “huge tapestry filled with masses of color and people, houses and forests, mysterious haunts of caves and grottoes, secrets and night skies.” When Fanny and Alexander are finally rescued by the Jewish antique dealer Isak Jacobi – Helena’s constant but covert lover – they enter a world of occult mysticism, where all questions of thematic exegesis instantly incinerate. This is cinema pitched at the most rarefied hypnotic frequency, and Bergman is to be forever commended for holding the note.