The sounds of war accompany the opening title of Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film Skammen (Shame). A tad unfamiliar to many Bergman regulars. Following the recent birth of Persona and the upcoming The Hour of the Wolf, this is evidently ample departure from the intimate melancholy, conflict with God, and the questionable status of one’s faith. We also get to embrace that illustrious visage of Liv Ullmann, truly magnificent here. And the camera loves every inch of her.
Bergman’s war-torn reality in Shame is hardly alien, though. Although it received some hefty criticism for the subject, given that the war in Vietnam was warming up, the film has an abundance of Bergmanesque portrayal of character struggles and mental decline. The trigger-happy finger-pointers, citing such irrelevant notions of propaganda and controversy, are perhaps those that don’t warrant the art of film important enough to open their creative minds.
Bergman was a laid back soul, but this negative feedback likely harmed the picture’s success at the time. Perhaps they mistook Bergman’s change of subject for a change of position. Politics was hardly his forte, film-wise, but an intellectual filmmaker he was. Bergman was not exactly pro-war either. I mean, there was conflict in Czechoslovakia, for example, at the time, but no media comparisons there. No, Bergman’s war was on human-kind.
The first bout of dialogue is a waking husband telling his wife about a dream he had. The married couple, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann), live on an island, of course, in a small, secluded house. She is pushy, no time to lose, speaks her mind; he is shielding an emotional set-back, seems withdrawn. But they appear a match, that they are familiar in each other’s company, not necessarily amidst a whirlwind romance.
The whiff of chaos comes early. Jan comments on the off-cue church bells ringing, and Eva hears that enemy troops might invade from the radio. Bergman establishes the prospect of fear and despair in his trademark poetic style. So grounded is the tone of the set-up, when the planes fly over-head, screeching and soaring, the explosions of bombs are genuinely startling. Ullmann and von Sydow have long-since immersed themselves into their roles, offering an authentic state of panic and impulsive dash for safety.
All hell breaks loose, the couple are temporarily captured by soldiers. And they attempt to interview a petrified Eva for a camera about her stand on the current political status. The mayhem briefly halts, when the soldiers are forced to disperse when more gunfire cracks out. The fear of imminent death you can almost taste, as Eva tells Jan the thought she had, “I am glad we don’t have children.” – before she sobs through the ordeal. Anticipating a greater loss.
Out of the deep, dark psyche of the human condition, we are witness to raging fire, the balls of light as the explosions hit, black smoke drifting seemingly everywhere. A war zone is crafted in a matter of moments. In one of many iconic scenes, a sorrowful Eva crouches down beside a dead child, and looks back into the world around her, aghast that it would let something this tragic happen. Its like a bucket of cold, painful water to the face.
Meanwhile, Jan drifts in and out of his personal torment. A classic Bergman narrative sees the disintegration, or regeneration, of character – and Jan’s slow transition to an abstract state creeps up. On the contrary, and in keeping with the couple’s distance, Eva is the more ferocious being. Her sense of urgency, as would be expected, is frantic, but forward-thinking.
The gunfire bang-bang-bangs chillingly, like a big, bad wolf at the door, hungry for bloodshed. The practical effects proving impressive here. Bergman and co utilized models of parts of the island, on a much smaller scale of course, but you’d never know. Made all the more captivating by our logic perceptions of what we usually expect from his movies. The details are on point too, Eva and Jan covered in dust, and surrounded by debris, flames lick and sway in the background.
When silence befalls them, Bergman allows close-ups of them to experience their adjustment to the lack of noise. Bird tweeting, even the odd drip-drip of water from somewhere. Silence is deafening, indeed. Throughout Shame, Bergman has a deft hand at returning to a tranquil tone, even in lingering moments of dread and confusion. When the military authorities question the couple, they accuse Eva of treachery. They have the newsreel of her interview, but dubbed over her voice with words supporting the enemy. These sedate moments even verge on horror, characters stuck in a helpless vacuum amidst a small collapsing world.
Eva and Jan’s tensions force them to bicker, and tell some home truths. Like war has allowed them to drop any more pretense. Eva disposes verbal backlash, while Jan seems to lash out with his hand. A recurring need for them to reassure each other’s affections, very much present at the film’s tranquil opening scenes, continues with a much harsher reality. Especially Jan, inhabiting the childlike persona that Eva laments him for.
The dynamics of the second half get even bleaker. Of course. A colonel, Jacobi, becomes a regular visitor, a rather bewildered, awkward one, his inappropriate actions become his downfall. The film is openly violent in places, unflinching, unforgiving. An execution lingers, as the victim attempts to crawl away. There’s a casual suicide. Horrifying moments of soldiers’ lifeless bodies floating in the sea.
Jan’s breakdown and turmoil gives him a inner strength, but his actions only propel the awfulness. Ultimately losing his humanity, with a heavy decline of his personality. Eva still finds it in her to be generous, to give, to aid to those that need it. Her emotions, to cry or show the true pain of these events, make her the far more empathetic character. In a flip-side to the film’s first scene, at the climax she speaks of her own dream, a far more idyllic scenario, now surely not possible to even imagine.
Bergman wanted to create the story of a regular couple, warts and all, with the ferocity of war a backdrop. Shame is not a war film per se, this is essentially about an adult relationship. Yes, I have said that already, but that is not merely a bullet point aided for narrative context. Shame carries themes of war, faith, loyalty, sanity, while depicting a relationship built on love, but shadowed with distant doubts, intolerance, and a dwindling respect for one another. Eva’s longing eyes when she looks at Jan initially seem romantic. In hindsight they are filled with the inevitable sorrow and a fading companionship.