Shame: In the Shadow of Vietnam

Shame_(film)Even Ingmar Bergman made a war movie once. Not that he was particularly happy about it. In one of his biographies, he writes about how poorly structured the first half of the script is and explains how he was trying to capture not the physical violence of war, but what happens to people who are forced to live in a society that no longer functions. A sort of inner violence follows.

Interesting stuff, eternally relevant, and Shame was greeted with enthusiasm by critics all over the world. Directors are not always the best people to judge the value of their work.

Sometime in the future a country is ravaged by a war, perhaps a civil war since representatives from the opposing sides speak the same language. We are introduced to a married couple, the Rosenbergs (Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann), who used to be musicians and have now settled down on an island. Isolated, since neither radio nor telephones work, they are hoping to avoid the horrors of war. After a visit to a local town where they hear that troops might be approaching, they return home only to find themselves in the middle of a skirmish between paratroopers and ground forces. The invaders make Eva answer questions about her political loyalties on camera. She doesn’t realize that the footage will be manipulated and used as propaganda…

Not interested in a statement
As usual, Bergman’s film caused a debate among intellectuals. There were critics who found Shame to be a frustrating experience. After all, this was 1968 and the Vietnam War had everybody up in arms, complete with huge student protests. Wasn’t Bergman supposed to have an opinion on this? Wasn’t he supposed to make a statement? But the director wasn’t all that interested. If he was making a statement, it had more to do with the eternal effects on people that a war could have rather than one specific conflict at the time.

The story uses its central couple to explore several emotions. Jan (von Sydow) is a weaker, emotional person while (Eva (Ullmann) is stronger. Their relationship is strained by the war and the constant stress on their lives. They talk about having children, but it seems unrealistic; the war is to blame, but Eva also suspects that Jan is too self-centered to care about kids. As the story moves forward and the couple are subjected to oppression and humiliation, Jan responds to it with cowardice, vengefulness and cruelty. This becomes obvious in several scenes involving colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand), an official who performs his dirty duties with indifference. His ultimate fate is one of the film’s most memorable, sickening scenes; so is another near the end, where a group of refugees are stuck at sea because of all the dead soldiers in the water.

Bergman also stages several action-filled battles, with explosions and shootouts; not a lot of money has been spent on it, but the director and cinematographer Sven Nykvist find ways to make it look harrowing, harsh and believable enough, taking great advantage of Bergman’s favorite island, Fårö. Björnstrand delivers one of his all-time greatest performances as the sad Jacobi, but von Sydow and Ullmann are also terrific as the musicians whose troubled relationship is exposed by the war.  

Those of us who haven’t lived through war have no idea what we’ll do in similar situations to survive. Our actions may be heroic or utterly shameful. Bergman’s choice to explore those sentiments in a more general way, and not Vietnam specifically, is one reason why we can see this movie today and not have to begin with putting politics from almost 50 years ago aside.

Shame 1968-Sweden. 103 min. B/W. Produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Cast: Liv Ullmann (Eva Rosenberg), Max von Sydow (Jan Rosenberg), Sigge Fürst (Filip), Gunnar Björnstrand, Birgitta Valberg, Hans Alfredson… Ingvar Kjellson, Vilgot Sjöman, Gösta Prüzelius, Lars Amble.

Trivia: Original title: Skammen.

Last word: “To make a war film is to depict violence committed toward both groups and individuals. In American film, the depiction of violence has a long tradition. In Japan, it has developed into a masterful titual, matchlessly choreographed. When I made ‘Shame’, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint. I did not understand that a modern portrayer of war needs a totally different fortitude and professional precision than what I could provide.” (Bergman, “Images”)

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