I only vaguely recall 1968. What I do vividly remember was both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy being assassinated within the space of a few months. Even the majority of the bigots at mother’s church (not all, by any means) were horrified, and during those moments, at least, practiced an extremely rare shut-mouth spirituality. It was surreal as hell. Things only became more nightmarish in the years immediately following, with the escalation of Vietnam and Watergate.
A continent or so away, Ingmar Bergman produced what most of us felt: Shame. Bergman was normally not an outright political filmmaker. The extremists certainly sniffed out the moderate artist within him. Not that they would watch his films anyway, being put off by subtitles (I don’t know how many times I’ve had to bite my lower lip after hearing camo-clad bumpkins proudly proclaim that they didn’t want to read a movie).
The focus of Bergman’s anger is war, but reeling from the criticisms he had received from utilizing the infamous footage of a Vietnamese monk’s immolation in 1966’s Persona, Bergman is more ambiguous here. He doesn’t state that his subject is Vietnam per se, which is why Shame is not as well-known as that previous film. Bergman’s ambiguity in a way neuters his own work, preventing it from becoming an equivalent to Picasso’s “Guernica,” which still provokes war-minded leaders (George W. Bush’s lackeys had a replica of that famous painting covered up with a black curtain at the United Nations). We could see Shame one way: like Buster Keaton, Bergman is a consummate artist lacking the courage of his ethical and social convictions (which were hinted at in Persona, although that film did not overtly subscribe to any specific ideology). In the case of both artists, their aesthetics are undermined by fear of being labeled political. In the case of Keaton, it took an artist of more elementary aesthetics (Charles Chaplin) to call out racism, sexism, and eventually Fascism. Likewise, Bergman’s Shame is rendered less impactful compared to his earlier opus and to the wave of anti-Vietnam films to come. Bergman plays it safe, indirectly shifting blame to a God in the sky instead of any persons or factions. Of course, we could also look at Shame as a desolate parable that transcends a specific time and place. It’s not an either/or assessment as much as it’s both/and.
In his later 1990 biography, “My Life in Films,” Bergman writes that he had previously been very proud of Shame, feeling that it exposed the personal violence of war, but added that he had come to be disappointed in it after realizing the his intentions were self-defeating.
Regardless of one’s view, Shame is aptly not a comfortable experience. The story centers around a musical couple, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) Rosenberg. Although loving, they are tormented by Eva’s barrenness, poverty, and the civil war surrounding their dilapidated home on an unnamed island.
Despite its enigmatic qualities, Shame is still superlative Bergman and startling. Having fled larger society, the Rosenbergs have become recluses, but their imperfect and monotonous tranquility is consumed by warfare.
The killing of a parachuter, arriving militias, arrests, incarceration, and torture are not typical Bergman themes, yet all are prevalent here. Smartly, Bergman’s focus is indeed a personal one. When Jan witnesses his wife flirting with another man, he is aroused; probably for the first time in a long time. Later, after she has sex with an interrogator, Jan becomes jealous and exacts revenge. In the beginning of the film, it is he who is weak. However, after being engulfed in despair from the barbarism that has engulfed them, he mantles fierceness. In contrast, Eva, once the romantic, is utterly crushed.
There are no battlefield scenes typically associated with war films, and that’s refreshing. The path of Shame is highly idiosyncratic; paradoxically pragmatic in its psychology and yet, pensive.
By the time we become desultory refugees with the Roenbergs, we are as drained as they are. Although Shame avoids direct political commentary of the era, it oddly become more poignant today because the one pointed portrayal of Bergman’s that is relevant today lies in that of the shameless authoritarian and his knee-bound sycophants, along with the effect of that demagoguery on ordinary lives.