(Swedish, 1968, 103 minutes, b/w, 16mm, in Swedish with English subtitles)
Ingmar Bergman’s 1960s films deserve their reputation as austere documents of obsessive self-analysis. In his most complex works, Bergman carefully situated his exercises in therapeutic autobiography in specific social contexts. SHAME is pulled, torn really, by two shattering events in Bergman’s, and mankind’s, existence, World War II and Vietnam.
Bergman had been a student at the outbreak of World War II, and he publicly regretted Sweden’s refusal to take sides, a position he called “neutralist poison,” because it tainted the distinction between good and evil with a toxin of political compromise. As Bergman put it, SHAME originates in a panicky question: how would I have behaved during the Nazi period if Sweden had been occupied, if I’d had some position of responsibility or been connected with some institution? Or had even found myself threatened as a private person? How much civic courage would I have been able to muster up under the threat of violence, physical or spiritual, in the war of nerves in an occupied country?
Bergman recognized that these questions continued to be valid when he saw television newscasts of the war in Vietnam, especially the now-ubiquitous image of helicopter gunships hovering over a rural country hamlet, shooting up farmsteads and killing people and livestock. The casual brutality of these images forced Bergman, he said, to regretfully place American actions in Vietnam in the same category as Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe, and Hitler’s tyranny in World War II. For Bergman the twentieth century was ending in a dissonant symphony of despair. In SHAME, he set out to chronicle the impact of seething cruelty on the psychologies of two artists ironically committed to ameliorating the desolation of modern existence with music.
Produced in what may have been the single most tumultuous year of the twentieth century, the film adds even more uncertainty and fear by vaulting the narrative forward to a then-unseen 1971, and by turning Vietnam into a vague allegory for all life in a climate of violence and occupation. As the two artists, Eva and Jan Rosenberg, Bergman cast the two most distinguished members of his stock company, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. Eva is a brilliant young pianist, while Jan is an older, curmudgeonly violinist. As always in a Bergman film, film narrative echoes autobiography: the film was shot on the island of Faro, where Bergman was then living with the much younger Ullmann in a relationship at least as stormy as that of Eva and Jan. War grips Eva and Jan’s unnamed nation, and they flee to the countryside to escape its psychic as well as its material depredations. Their escape is momentary, and in vain. Bergman’s fundamental message in SHAME is perhaps the least ambiguous of any of his major works: war is an inescapable moral reality. It eventually conquers even one’s subconscious, however distant one is from the frontlines.
SHAME was one of several major works of this period which presented the war in Vietnam in unique ways. There were Godard’s LETTER TO JANE, as well as his nihilistic farce WEEKEND, with which SHAME was often compared. There were also Gillo Pontecorvo’s THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, Costa-Gavras’ STATE OF SIEGE, and Haskell Wexler’s MEDIUM COOL; Vietnam haunts all these films like a specter in camouflage green. At first, Bergman’s film may seem the least political of this distinguished group, but his ironic use of the electronic news media (a rare instance of overt parody in Bergman, and a measure of his anger), as well as Sven Nykvist’s stark black-and-white images (influenced by Life magazine still photography of the war) make SHAME as outspoken a cultural critique as any of these other agitprop 60’s masterworks.
Bergman’s non-specific setting for his film, and his use of a filmic future tense places SHAME in an historical limbo. They liberate it from mere topicality, but create at the same time a specific and surreal view of war as bitter folly. By the time he was finished making SHAME, what had begun for Bergman as a painful exercise in autobiography had become something broader, more universal, and he could say in 1983, “SHAME. . . doesn’t have anything to do with the Nazis. It has to do only with violence, open violence, and sophisticated violence, and how violence deforms human beings.”
In choosing to localize the effects of armed conflict in an artist, Bergman was returning to a figure he treasured, and a mode he dreaded. For Bergman, the artist in society has always not only portrayed society’s highest aspirations, she has also confronted society with its most catastrophic failures. Here, the reassuring rigidity of the symphony is contrasted with the anarchy of a world at war. In this new setting, Bergman’s artists are called upon to be unrelentingly honest and brave, a pressure that can be emotionally crippling. Bergman suffered several ravaging bouts with depression during his filmmaking career, and, in a sense, his artist-protagonists suffer from ongoing emotional breakdowns. His respect for the artist, Bergman has said, comes not from a mere similarity of vocation. Rather, he says, the artist must use the artistic medium at her disposal to express herself; she “cannot flinch,” unlike the rest of us, who evade the compulsion to speak of the worsening human condition. The use of the artist-as-hero, as opposed to another kind of protagonist, forces the issue of personal culpability for Bergman:
Which is the whole point -- how much of a fascist are you and I harboring inside ourselves? What sort of a situation is needed to turn us from good social democrats to Nazis?
Nowhere in Bergman’s work is the responsibility to state the truth about the conditions under which we live explored more cathartically than in SHAME. During the year of SHAME’s release, film critic Robin Wood wrote of SHAME’s success in focusing his era’s public and private agonies:
As I sit writing this there is a record of the Brandenburg Concertos on the Gramophone, and I can see my children playing in the garden. Men, women and children -- familiar like mine -- are being burnt and blasted to death in Vietnam, and I have absolutely no idea what may be happening to me and the few people I love ten years, five years, two months from now. SHAME is central to the experience I am living at the moment. . . .
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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