Ingmar Bergman on the set with actress Liv Ullmann
SHAME (Skammen) B
aka: The Shame
Sweden (103 mi) 1968 d: Ingmar Bergman
Bergman continues to defy expectations with yet another genre film, coming on the heels of making his first horror film, this time making an apocalyptic war movie with bleak end-of-the-world implications, veering into Cormac McCarthy territory, ultimately resembling John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009). It’s interesting that it may also remind viewers of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (Offret) (1986), both shot with Bergman’s quintessential cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, though this is more of an experimental trial run for that much more epic film. The second in his Fårö Island Trilogy (his last Black and White feature), again featuring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as an artist and his beleaguered wife, playing in each film of the trilogy a couple under psychological duress, where since Persona (1966), Bergman has been making films about the disintegration of the human psyche, where this continues that theme of disconnection, personal alienation and loss. Breaking from his chamber drama tradition, where guns and explosions are not associated with Bergman films, this is instead a scathing response to the escalation of the Vietnam War, where television images were seen around the world revealing catastrophic killings on a daily basis. Unlike previous wars where soldiers were slaughtered, innocent civilians are the new victims, people who are clueless what the war’s even about, with both sides guilty of carrying out their own atrocities, where accumulating civilian deaths are simply the collateral damage of policies made by people who live nowhere near the front lines, who remain safely behind heavily fortified settings, where those affected are ordinary people simply trying to survive each passing day, yet napalm and firebombs are repeatedly dropped in their vicinity, making absolutely no sense to local rice farmers or fishermen who have no vested interest in any war. While the film holds up over time, never identifying an anonymous invader or their political beliefs, the ramifications of war trauma hasn’t changed in the modern era, with the insanity of his previous film becoming a dominant theme here as well, though the film lacks the emotional involvement of the better Bergman films, feeling overly detached, almost Haneke-like in Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du Loup) (2003), where we witness mass killings, the burning destruction of homes, ravaging crops, forcing huge groups into starvation and refugee camps which are literally overrun by a desperate population trying to escape, where medical calamities continually crop up wiping out even more, where the most drastically affected are women, the elderly, and children, all nonparticipants in the war effort. The release of the film coincided with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, with European allies offering withering criticism of American foreign policy, still reminded of Russian tanks invading the streets of Prague overnight in Czechoslovakia, taking the world by surprise. Bergman recalled a particular newsreel event in Vietnam that described the enveloping madness giving rise to his film, “An old man and woman were walking with a cow … And all of a sudden, a helicopter … started up and began making a racket … And the cow tore itself loose, and the old woman dashed away after the cow, and the helicopter rose and rose, and this old man just stood there, completely nonplussed and utterly confused and desperate. And, somehow, more than all the atrocities I’ve seen, I experienced that third party’s misery, when everything breaks loose over his head.”
While actress Liv Ullmann, in particular, was proud of her work in this film, Bergman was less enchanted, finding the script uneven, yet this subject matter was near and dear to the heart of Ullmann who went on the become a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, co-founder and honorary chair of the International Rescue Committee’s Women's Refugee Commission. The traumatizing effects of war are simply devastating to those effected, with nations around the world so cavalierly willing to engage in mass slaughter, motivated by nationalistic fervor and deep-seeded ethnic animosities over what they perceive as historical transgressions that must be avenged. Making little sense to the rest of the world, the conditions on the ground result in utter madness and barbarity, with irrational hatred and fears often the driving force behind waves of modern era ethnic cleansing. While there is never a moment when viewers aren’t aware that they’re watching a film, an artificial recreation of circumstances building beyond our control, with an unnamed war all but consuming a small island, the film is shot in a near documentary style, reminding us how easily complacency is uprooted and replaced by a brutal authoritative fascism. For Bergman, part of the film’s challenge was imagining how he might have responded during the Nazi period if Sweden had been occupied, with most men reduced to cowards and weaklings (of interest, Bergman was fascinated by Nazism and spent time in Nazi Germany as a teenager, witnessing a Nazi rally with Hitler which he viewed with unbridled enthusiasm). Sweden remained neutral during the war, despite the surrounding stench of blood, an official policy that one might take issue with, like Winston Churchill who believed Sweden “ignored the greater moral issues of the war and played both sides for profit.” One might infer a certain amount of guilt by Swedish citizens, including a well-educated Bergman who asks the existential questions, where the origin of the title takes on national significance. With bullets heard over the opening credits, and garbled military instructions in multiple languages, the film is centered around the destruction of a comfortable life, a married couple, Jan and Eva (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann), have withdrawn to a quiet retreat on a remote island where they survive by selling fruit grown on their own farm, cut off and isolated from the rest of the world, indifferent to growing concerns of a visible military build-up, they are dumbstruck at the outbreak of a civil war military uprising with their farm and nearby neighbors targeted for annihilation. Gone are the long stretches of dialogue between characters, replaced by confessional outbursts, often staring straight at the camera, as if in utter frustration. Bergman shows how easily individuals are effected, with some reaching out to help others in distress (Ullmann), while others turn a blind eye and give in to the surrounding moral vacuum by becoming murderers themselves (von Sydow). The great debate over the big questions in life has been discarded by a new more economical minimalism, where instead of questioning the existence or meaninglessness of God, Bergman’s characters now nag away at each other mercilessly, filled with underlying personal resentments, with Eva dreaming of having a child, yet Jan is an insensitive husband and a spineless coward, often reduced to paralysis and tears, sitting alone on the stairs, with Eva viewing him in contempt, constantly at his heels for his glaring deficiencies. Both are former musicians for an orchestra that has disbanded, apparently one of the first cultural luxuries sacrificed in a war that has been raging for years, with this couple trying their best to lead a normal life in the midst of chaos erupting all around them.
Once the jet planes streak overhead and bombs are dropped, all hell breaks loose, where they try to make an escape but the roads are blocked from all the death and destruction, with bodies strewn about everywhere, much like the plague-ridden landscape in The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) (1957). This labyrinthian maze of dead ends leads them right back to their home, where initially rebel forces descend upon their farm, interviewing Eva on TV for propaganda purposes as a person they have liberated (she struggles to maintain a neutrality), with both sides using doctored footage of Eva’s speech as evidence of a crime (which is surprisingly prescient), yet just as quickly governmental forces drive them away, with residents rounded up and herded into a communal interrogation center, stripping them of any hint of human decency, quickly executing collaborators, creating nightmarish conditions, where suddenly your life is controlled by outside forces, with Eva remarking to Jan, “Sometimes everything seems just like a dream. It's not my dream, but somebody else’s that I have to participate in. What happens when the one who dreamt us wakes up and feels ashamed?” Where this leaves viewers is in a Kafkaesque no man’s land of discomfort (with some imprisoned in concentration camps), as neither side of this war holds the moral high ground, with citizens having nowhere to turn, exasperated at the thought of having to accept this new regime as a legitimate moral authority, yet it’s unscrupulous, untrustworthy, and corrupt, as evidenced by repeated visits from the former mayor turned Colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand) misusing his authority, with designs on Eva, forcing her into difficult and uncompromising positions, which include sexual favors in exchange for their freedom, a reality ignored by a delusional Jan but painstakingly obvious to Eva, who is basically raped to insure their safety. This plaguing existential dilemma matches that of the Vietnamese farmers having to endure a continual bombardment of bombs for reasons they can’t begin to understand, yet surprisingly, this is the only Bergman film to offer a glimpse into the future. Once Jan realizes how he’s been duped, the sham of their life breaks into open revolt, both hating what the other stands for, no longer recognizing their former selves, with Jan evolving into a despicable creature, basically resorting to fascist instincts, where life has lost all meaning, viewing others as totally expendable, where all he cares about is saving himself. Resorting back to a primal version of himself, eliminating all creative outlets, this is a devastating portrait of survival instincts. With the world around them on the island ravaged and rotten, they flee back to the mainland, as if to take refuge there, an invisible world they know nothing about, as there’s been no mention of it since the invasion, yet now it provides their last fleeting hope. Setting off in a primitive row boat with other escapees, they soon discover the folly of their choice, with the motor giving out, running out of food and water, left endlessly adrift, apparently doomed to starvation, becoming engulfed by a sea of floating corpses from which they can’t escape, literally surrounded by floating bodies and the stench of death, where one presumes the end is near. Eva’s dreams of ever having a family disappear in the gloom. It recalls the last breath of Col. Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), whispering under his breath “The horror…the horror.” For Bergman, this monstrous disintegration of humanity is our collective shame.