In the late 1960s Ingmar Bergman was not a particularly fashionable figure, despite having made the astonishing and experimental Persona in 1966 (now one of the most respected films of postwar European cinema). By 1968, things were changing very quickly. Sweden’s most famous filmmaker, it was increasingly claimed, was much more interested in portraying the onscreen crises of privileged artists than essaying an increasingly violent contemporary social reality. Such was the environment into which Skammen (Shame, 1968), his in many ways surprising film about war and its effects, emerged later the same year.
Often spoken about as one of Bergman’s least discussed works, Shame has nevertheless been very highly praised by his admirers as one of the director’s greatest achievements. (Robin Wood’s pioneering 1969 book on the director treats this then most recent film as Bergman’s masterpiece. ) More immediately, however, the film also elicited an enormous amount of debate in the Swedish press around the extent to which it commented on the escalating war in Vietnam. Exemplifying the increasingly radical climate within film culture and beyond, students walked out of Bergman’s 1968 classes (ironically, perhaps, during lectures on Eisenstein’s Strachka [Strike, 1924]) at the Swedish Film Institute for being an out-of-date “bourgeois” figure. Yet this period, in which Bergman was portrayed as being so out of touch with a quickly changing present-day reality, also produced his most radical filmmaking. And appropriately, 1968 was the year of arguably his most politically potent film.
While recognisably a Bergman film from its first frame, and in many respects continuing his remarkable series of 1960s chamber dramas, Shame also seems to offer, in certain respects, a different form and more topical content. Following the modernist fragmentation of Persona and the coolly received Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf; emerging earlier in 1968, and seeming to prove Bergman’s hermetic disconnection from historical reality), a comparably subdued aesthetic palette and comparably “realist” transparency now returns to his filmmaking. And while Shame does concentrate on a central couple, instead of a privileged duo or mere handful of people constituting the entire human presence on screen (as was so often the case in Bergman’s then most recent work), a larger cast of characters and extras enact the most horrific of all realities.
Such developments don’t alter the fact that Shame is something of a triumphant summation of Bergman’s cinema, including its basic aesthetic parameters. This is the last film the director intended for theatrical distribution featuring his trademark use of both black-and-white and the 1.33:1 “Academy” ratio. (All subsequent productions, excepting some television-funded work, would be shot in colour and modest 1.66:1 widescreen.) Appropriately, and more importantly perhaps, the highest rewards of regular small-unit filmmaking, so important to Bergman’s cinema, are also here on copious but unostentatious display. His famed partnership with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in their eighth feature together, yields striking yet subtly orchestrated compositions and camera movements, making masterly use of both architectural interiors and exterior space. The film is also Bergman’s seventh collaboration with editor Ulla Ryghe, demonstrating a simpler cutting regime and manipulation of overall tempo than in their previous work together. His well-known regular use of key actors over many years is also crucial to the film’s success. The quintessential anguished Bergman male – here called Jan – is at his most “ordinary”, abject and ultimately horrific thanks to Max von Sydow’s ninth (and greatest) appearance in the director’s films. Liv Ullmann has her third consecutive starring role, as Eva, embodying a strikingly “everyday” presence after her more iconic use in Persona and Hour of the Wolf. And Shame marks the 15th Bergman film featuring Gunnar Björnstrand, the greatest of all his male actors, here giving another restrained, tough yet not entirely unsympathetic performance. In addition to such prominent figures, the rest of the film’s crew feature many people who had worked with Bergman countless times or would go on to do so.
All of this can perhaps best be seen in Shame’s first 25 minutes, before the abrupt escalation of military violence. Although notable for being a kind of “war film”, this is perhaps even more primarily a “relationship film”. Reaching an apotheosis with Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973), from the beginning Bergman was an especially acerbic chronicler of romantic and sexual relationships at their most complex and abrasive. In Shame, war serves to only exacerbate, and bring to an even more traumatic head, apparently inherent problems between Eva and Jan. The subdued early scenes are some of the best Bergman and his unit ever produced when it comes to presenting the finely observed absurdities and affection, mixed with lingering anger and only partially submerged frustrations. We simply watch this couple get up, eat breakfast, talk, try to pack and leave the house, observing how they behave towards each other at each given moment.
Particularly in the film’s uncharacteristic action sequences during its middle third, Bergman and Nykvist favour an unexpectedly large amount of handheld and zoom lens camerawork. While the director had earlier experimented with different modes of realism, there appears a new “cinéma vérité” component here, likely influenced more by the generally self-conscious French version spearheaded by Jean Rouch than the American objectivity-seeking “direct cinema” mode. Even at its most apparently realist, Shame evidences a subtle reflexivity with accented lens flares, the occasional presence of cameras and arc lights in the frame (diegetically “justified” by wartime techniques of recording and propaganda), and a sense of auto-critique to which I will return. Added to this is a theoretically contradictory mix in which more realist and vérité-style sequences butt up against self-consciously “Bergmanesque” images showing the two central figures trudging across a bare landscape. Throughout, Shame’s visual surface features a remarkable grey-scale and gradations of light arguably even more impressive and virtuosic (if less overtly demonstrative) than in the previous films. This is largely thanks to Nykvist’s unequalled ability in marshaling and manipulating natural light.
While there are some relatively quick cuts during the action scenes – Bergman and Ryghe combining handheld and tripod-mounted shots with an increased editing tempo – one relative stylistic consistency is the film’s striking use of long takes. Notable examples include the first post-credits image of Eva and Jan as they slowly wake; the one-shot scene where they enjoy a meal outdoors (with only Ullmann’s face visible over von Sydow’s shoulder); the very long, rather frustrating shot of a lone white building filmed almost surveillance-style from far across the street, which will eventually show the couple being carted off, along with others, by soldiers (for possible imprisonment in a concentration camp we later learn); and the lengthy “presentational” scene, shot proscenium arch-style, in which they drunkenly sit and awkwardly talk with Jacobi as the complex shades and costs of collaboration smolder.
Another notable stylistic element is Bergman’s bold yet also subtle work with sound. Starting with German World War II and US Vietnam War-era speeches mixed with generic war noise over the opening credits, every scene thereafter features immaculately recorded and mixed sound as appropriately ambiguous accompaniment of the image. In this film about two (seemingly former) musicians, there is no music. While his 1950s films utilised extensive scoring, Shame exemplifies Bergman’s general ’60s tendency to reduce the use of music or eradicate it altogether. The filmmaker often argued during this period that the moving image is itself equivalent to music in its affective power, but that the potential impact of both art forms would only be reduced if forced together. In this film the image is left accompanied only by “matching” sounds, its remarkable hermeneutic potential and openness left intact.
Shame constitutes more than a newly subtle perfection of Bergman’s formal developments and idiosyncratic modernism. In interviews during 1967-68 the filmmaker expressed a desire to re-connect with contemporary history in a broader sense as motivated by the violence in Vietnam, even if he ultimately rejected Shame being seen as a straight parable or commentary thereon. At the same time, with this film he also wanted to scratch a scab dating from World War II, in particular the troubling question as to what he (or anyone) would do if his country were taken over by a foreign power or repressive domestic force. While some prominent foreign critics (such as Pauline Kael) welcomed this at least partial return to “reality” and others (such as Andrew Sarris) mocked it as phony, the enormous debate in the Swedish press largely concerned Bergman’s apparent refusal to clarify the exact nature of the conflict and the political position of his film. This, it was argued, easily amounted to either a fudging when it came to taking a stand on the US occupation of South Vietnam or, worse, an actual justification for the ensuing atrocities (and thereby imperialism per se) (2). The recession of such debates over time – and not necessarily for the better, if we consider the still insufficiently faced facts of the almost complete destruction by the richest nation on Earth of ultimately three Third World countries, killing at least 3 million people (surely the worst international crime since 1945) – has helped the film speak to audiences outside its period by asking stark and far from resolved questions.
Shame is a genuinely political work in a non-doctrinaire, genuinely thoughtful, and far from untroubling way. This is most obvious, perhaps, in Bergman’s critique of the moving image’s role during wartime in the form of propaganda, but also through the film’s use of “progressive” news journalism and vérité shooting styles, as well as its incorporation of Life magazine-style iconography. Influences from the other side of the Cold War divide is also apparent, with later images especially showing a distinct debt to Thaw-era Soviet and European Communist bloc war films. These elements not only give Shame a further intertextual dimension but also accumulatively serve to ask how, and indeed whether the moving image can best represent war, violence and the suffering it causes. Seen in this light (and following on from Persona’s more abstract questioning), Shame becomes a perhaps surprising late-’60s auto-critical, and indeed political, film.
Sometimes lost in the political debates is the fact that Shame is not actually set in the present, but rather a few short years ahead in time (while not clear in the film, supposedly 1971). It is a work of “science fiction” in the sense that many of Peter Watkins’ “speculative documentaries” are (such as Punishment Park, 1970), a form that can actually enlarge rather then lessen its potential political dimensions. Yet Bergman was also keen to emphasise in interviews that the film was made just prior to both the Tet offensive and the subsequent US escalation of the war and the entrance of the Red Army into Prague (3). The film, he thereby stresses, is not really about all-out war but the less deadly and especially difficult issues (and even definitions) of occupation and creeping complicity. This is what had always interested Bergman about the lingering spectre of Nazism and World War II (he is quite open about his initial blind excitement with Nazism and later shame after spending time in Nazi Germany as a teenager). These questions always remain relevant, while also being well suited to his temperament as a filmmaker long drawn to moral complication and crisis.
Even if we remain understandably perturbed by Bergman making a war-scenario film without incorporating some kind of commentary on “Vietnam”, a war in which the US would eventually detonate more weapons against Indochina’s largely peasant societies than were exploded in Europe between 1939 and 1945, this also makes Shame more relevant for having been made in a country that was far removed from the globe’s violent hot spots and was also the beneficiary of rather guilt-inducing neutrality during World War II. As an especially self-conscious “symptom” of such history, Bergman is very well placed to analyse the burden felt by survivors and beneficiaries of collaboration or neutrality. That he does not profess the commonly desired moral fig leaf of never-tested heroic “resistance”, thereby inviting easy censure and ideological rejection, actually makes the film more challenging and properly radical. In Shame, these are far from abstract thematic or ethical concerns. Rather, they are horrifically enacted in the form of an enormously clear-eyed and desperately excoriating portrait. Jan and Eva’s “weakness” actually works as the proper generator of Shame’s almost impossible-to-escape interior gaze for privileged viewers who are the direct beneficiaries of the historical and ongoing invasion and occupation of others’ lands. Such a portrayal also enables us to see a war fought without the clear demarcations of invader and invaded, immorality and morality, conservative and progressive, etc., but driven by opaque forces increasingly hard to understand for many civilians. Politics here becomes a kind of meaningless “metaphysics”. But as opposed to the “God question” (in Bergman’s work now overcome, as for much of an increasingly secular Swedish population), the issues and questions raised here are far from theoretical. One can choose not to believe in the political forces or options at hand, but that won’t stop the violence spawned when such aspects are taken to the zenith of belief in the form of armed conflict.
Viewed in these terms, Shame is anything but a hermetic, disengaged and non-reflexive film. It subtly frames what should be a central question for any remotely responsible or engaged work: the extent to which art, here the moving image, can respond to the atrocities of “real” history. The drunken dinner table scene between Jan, Eva and Jacobi is, in many respects, the film’s centerpiece in this regard. Having just given the for now retired musicians a Dvořák trio recording, the latest in a series of politically awkward presents, and feeling under increasing pressure (it turns out guerillas are waiting for him outside, led by Jan and Eva’s acquaintance, Filip), the former local Mayor and now seemingly Vichy-style administrator declares with world-weary sarcasm, after violently snapping his cane on the table: “The holy freedom of art. The holy slackness of art.” If Bergman’s 1960s cinema so often exemplifies the potential freedom of cinema as both a narrative and philosophical art form, at this moment Shame asks of its “artist” and his work a truly succinct, unsentimental and difficult question. More than Bergman’s worst accusers, perhaps, he incorporates the best criticism of complicity, the cost of his own privilege, freedom and ultimate lack of accountability. As for the onscreen recipients of Jacobi’s rebuke, in their former roles as orchestral players subserviently repeating the exact same notes with precise inflection as dictated by the text and enforced by a conductor’s tyrannical rule, Eva and Jan would likely have never experienced or espoused the “holy freedom of art”. But they certainly are “slack” (4).
Despite or in part thanks to its increased consideration of “external” reality’s exponentially violent effects, Shame brings to a real crescendo Bergman’s great work of the 1960s (before coming to a conclusion with the also quite remarkable TV film Riten [The Rite] and his first serious colour film, En passion [The Passion of Anna], both 1969). Even more than his already rather excoriating work, here it is especially difficult to rescue a hopeful vision of the human experience. This writer-director’s overriding theme, the dissolution of the human subject (so complexly explored in Persona), now reaches its most inescapable, horrific and ethically challenging portrait. The epicentre this time is a very ordinary and cowardly figure – yet again a loosely-defined artist (albeit a kind of “cultural factory worker”, cog in a serried rank of string players) – all too banally human in the film’s early scenes and actually no less so upon the turn to murderous violence. While Shame’s medium- and close-up shots mainly linger on Eva’s/Ullmann’s face, she is not dissolution’s ground zero, although certainly transformed (going from rather impatient and non-empathic to expressing what appears to be some rare human compassion in the later scenes). Neither is the war itself. In stark contrast to Ullmann, the key images of the ultimately central figure show von Sydow iconographically, with his face burrowed in massive hands and lanky body cramped with paralytic anxiety.
Following Jan’s eventual self-rousing and turn to cold-blooded murder, Shame reaches its muted yet appalling climax, surely one of the most devastating and disabling of all cinematic conclusions.
These images, in which Jan and Eva lie awaiting probable death with a few others in a small fishing boat stuck in a sea of corpses (an image even more resonant for Australian and other viewers inescapably familiar with debased and “otherised” discourses around “illegal boat people”), bear this out with claustrophobically apocalyptic precision. Even the figure that has appeared the most genuinely motivated, Filip, quietly suicides by slipping into the murky water (perhaps out of shame for his actions in making Jan kill Jacobi, destroying the couple’s house, or any other number of wartime reasons). Although Eva’s own survival instinct means, for now at least, that she seems troublingly reconciled with Jan’s violent persona, we are granted a kind of limit-point entropic vision of the human.
In a now lengthy series of films mining such terrain, the familiar but slightly more realistic nightmare presented by Shame is once more about relationships, privilege and art, now inextricably skewered by the slippery experience of wartime, survival, occupation and complicity. The dissolution of the subject, so relentlessly mined in Bergman’s 1960s cinema, here reaches its surprisingly socio-political zenith. Crucially, all this occurs through a very carefully drawn portrait of problematic but, in many respects, ordinary enough people. Crossing the intimate and the worldly, reality’s true multileveled violence cannot be kept at bay.
- Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman, Praeger, New York, 1969.
- Pressed for a position at the height of the media controversy, Bergman said: “Privately, my view of the war in Vietnam is clear. The war should have been over a long time ago and the Americans gone.” Quoted in Erik Hedling, “Shame: Ingmar Bergman’s Vietnam War”, Nordicom Review, vol. 29, no. 2, 2008, p. 251.
- Bergman in The Ingmar Bergman Archives, ed. Paul Duncan and Bengt Wanselius, Taschen, Cologne, 2008, p. 360.
- In a 1967 interview, Bergman evoked the likely “normal” nature of Jan and Eva’s political position in supporting the same party that had ruled Sweden virtually uninterrupted for decades: “They are Social Democrats, they have always voted for the Social Democrats, as that party supports the arts”. Quoted in Hedling, p. 246. This puts a slightly different spin on their “apolitical” nature.
Skammen/Shame (1968 Sweden 103 mins)
Prod Co: Cinematograph AB/Skevsk Filmindustri Prod: Lars-Owe Carlberg Dir, Scr: Ingmar Bergman Phot: Sven Nykvist Ed: Ulla Ryghe Prod Des: P. A. Lundgren
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Sigge Fürst, Gunnar Björnstrand, Hans Alfredson, Birgitta Valberg