I should no longer be surprised whenever critics miss the most obvious things in works of art, because they are human beings, and the vast majority of human beings are lazy by nature. That said, the simplistic notion that Ingmar Bergman’s great 1968 drama Skammen / Shame is merely anti-war does a great deal of damage to the reputation of this highly complex and nuanced film.
Compared to its more cinematically “show-offy” predecessors, Persona and Vargtimmen / Hour of the Wolf, Shame is seemingly a more classical film in terms of narrative. But the key word is “seemingly,” for while Shame lacks the bravura pop psychologizing of Persona and the gaudy horror film homage of Hour of the Wolf, it is one of the best films ever made about war – without being either merely anti-war or pro-war. As such, it has to rank with Smultronstället / Wild Strawberries as one of Bergman’s greatest films, and it possibly is the best of all his screenplays.
Although ostensibly more “psychologically exterior” than the director’s previous films, Shame says profoundly realistic things about the human psyche and the human will to survive. In the film, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann play Jan and Eva Rosenberg (perhaps a nod at the infamous American spies, whom many European intellectuals felt were innocent), two musicians who used to play for the local philharmonic orchestra before a war broke out, forcing them to retreat to a small plot of land on an island where they contentedly worked at a greenhouse.
Both the country and the island where they live are unnamed. (Shame was made on Bergman’s small island of Farö, just off the northern end of the Swedish Island of Göttland.) Their nation has apparently been at war for some years with an invading country, or perhaps it has been engaged in a civil war with rebels from another province. This is all left deliberately hazy, as this war is meant to symbolize all wars. That approach is reinforced as the film starts with assorted war quotes on the screen while the credits roll. These include quotes from the likes of Hitler and Vietnam Era American military figures.
After early scenes that depict the prosaic nature of their rural life and the coming of war on the island, where even old men are conscripted, an aerial attack ravages the Rosenbergs’ land. Enemy jets fly overhead, dropping bombs and what seems to be chemical weapons of an Agent Orange-like nature. One plane is hit, and a parachutist jumps out and ends up hanging in a tree. Jan, who starts off the film as a sniveling coward, refuses to go and help. Eva goes alone. Jan joins her and they find the pilot has been shot. It seems he is, indeed, part of the invading (or possibly rebel) force. A bunch of government soldiers soon stop at their home to ask questions about the dead pilot. The couple is told to leave their home, for the invaders are near.
After the soldiers take off, the Rosenbergs pack up and are ready to leave when the invading army stops them. They do a quick ambush interview with Eva, asking her how she feels to have been ‘liberated.’ She is confused and knows little of the conflicts behind the war, only that it has gone on too long. But before they can finish the interview, the Invaders are repelled, and the Rosenbergs’ land and home is ravaged further. When the government forces reassert control, they round up the locals, to find out who collaborated with the enemy.
Eva’s interview newsreel has been captured by the government, and although it has obviously been altered with another’s voice, her claims of supporting the Invaders is used against her, and allows the Mayor of the local town, Colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand),who has been put in charge of determining who lives and dies, the leverage he needs to pursue his lustful feelings for Eva. He originally was a nice man who bought the produce the Rosenbergs grew, but power has corrupted him, or rather, he allowed it too. Too cowardly to serve again in a military campaign, he chose to become a merchant of life and death. He spares the couple, and gives them presents, telling them over and again that they can thank him that they were not sent to a concentration camp. It is now clear that as bad as the Invaders might have seemed, the government is as bad, or even worse, and clearly a Fascist state in the Italian or German mold.
After numerous visits to try to seduce Eva, Jacobi finally succeeds in getting her to relent, with Jan’s tacit approval, as part of the need to survive. In his guilt, over forcing Eva into sex, Jacobi gives her 23,000 kronor, thus making a whore of her. As he is leaving the Rosenbergs’ residence, he is intercepted by the rebel forces, led by a local named Filip Olsson (Sigge Fürst), whom the Rosenbergs also know, and Jacobi bargains for his life, willing to give the rebels, who are from ‘the Organization’, the money he gave Eva.
But Jan pocketed it when he woke up after passing out drunk, and discovered Jacobi finally successfully blackmailed his wife into sex. Eva is shocked he will not give them the money to spare Jacobi. This means Jacobi will die, but after ransacking and then burning the Rosenbergs’ home, and even killing their chickens, it is decided by Filip for Jan to execute Jacobi. Jan is frightened, resists, drops the gun, but finally does kill Jacobi, even as he had been unable to even shoot a chicken earlier in the film.
Throughout the film, the Rosenbergs bicker and then make up, but the killing of Jacobi is a tipping point. The already cold and schizoid Eva pulls further away from her husband, after earlier accusing him of many other things – infidelities, coldness, cowardice, whining. That she is a nag is doubtless, although most critics of the film see her as the stronger and more moral partner. Yet, she never grows in the film, while Jan does grow, from a weak, sniveling coward, to a man who will kill to survive and protect his mate.
A bit later, after their property is irredeemably destroyed, they come upon a sleepy government soldier, hiding from the Invaders, who have now seemingly successfully overthrown the Fascist government. As the young boy, no more than twenty, falls asleep in Eva’s arms, Jan steals his gun, overpowers him, and then leads him away to be executed, even stealing his boots, to replace his old ones Jan said were worn out.
But is it murder? After all, the soldier was part of an evil government that ran concentration camps. Yes, he was a child, but how many innocents did he kill, and how willingly? And wasn’t Jacobi a mass murderer himself? Jan kills him not out of bloodlust nor vengeance for sleeping with Eva – a fact too many critics naïvely see as Jan’s only motive, for were that true he would not be so reluctant to kill the man. He drops the gun, and shakily misses on several attempts, before ending it. What is missed is that he has been tacitly ordered by Filip to kill the monster, or be killed himself.
And Jan is absolutely right when he says that Filip’s men would have killed Jacobi even had he given them the money. So, the killing of Jacobi is not murder, and the killing of the young soldier is somewhat defensible in wartime, when the soldier is partly responsible for serving a government that murders it own citizens in concentration camps. Jan has not become a monster, as many dimwitted critics proclaim, but is a survivor. This is the sort of complex ethical situations this film confronts, which dreck like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan never even dared to approach, and which most critics supposedly yearn for in art but utterly whiff on when presented to them.
Jan finds out that the soldier was to escape the island on a fishing boat headed to the mainland, so Jan and Eva take his place, and bribe their passage with the money from Jacobi. Their island community and life is forever destroyed. Out on the sea, a man commits suicide by meekly going overboard, at night, while the rest of the refugees are left to share bread, water, and physically navigate through waters literally clogged with dead bodies. The film ends with Eva huddling next to her husband, as he stares into the sky, telling him of a dream she had, but being unsure of what it all means. This is an ending no Hollywood film would dare. But they still survive.
Despite the bleakness of the film, the ending is hopeful, as Jan is looking toward the sky, symbolic of the future and hope. This film is a testimony to the human will to perdure, and its resilience, and it is Jan who is the far stronger character, ultimately, for he learns to do what is necessary to survive in a war between the Barbarian Other and evil Big Brother. He will lie and kill, if needed. He has evolved from his weak beginnings, where he was a frail, cowardly musician on heart medicine, and 4F, and has adapted, survived, while Eva, whom most critics feel is the stronger, nobler character, slowly sinks into a morose dream world, bordering on dementia
The acting by Björnstrand is stellar and subtle, as he slowly morphs from a decent man into a monster we want to see Jan kill. Ullmann, as Eva, is good, but her performance is rather static, and her character rather one dimensional and unlikable. All she does is complain, first that her husband is a wimp, then, when he becomes a man of action to protect her, she complains of that, as well. Von Sydow, however, gives a truly great and towering performance, and one far greater than the more obviously showy performance he gives in Hour of the Wolf. In that film, his artist disintegrates due to internal pressures. In this film he is reborn a better, stronger man due to the horrors of war he is forced to confront and surmount.
On a trivial note, this film reconfirms my view that all of Bergman’s films take place in the same fictive universe, for many of the same character names are repeated over and again, and suggest cross-filmic character linkages and relationships. As an example, early on in the film Mayor Jacobi mentions that Kreisler, the conductor of the orchestra for which the Rosenbergs played, has been drafted. That is the same name of the conductor found in Hour of the Wolf. As for the visuals, Sven Nyqvist’s black-and-white cinematography is not as dramatic as in some of his earlier films, but the shaky handheld shots, in a cinéma vérité style, are brilliant, and are heightened by the faster-paced cutting of editor Ulla Ryghe.
Shame, however, has been woefully misinterpreted from its release. First of all, on a macro level, where many see it as anti-war when it really is anti-Fascist and anti-inhumanist. Forget what Bergman himself may or may not have said, for he has no more right to interpret the film than any critic or viewer. Shame stands on its own, and it is hardly a pessimistic film about disintegration – after all, despite all the odds and misery the humans go on at the end.
Typical of what some critics claim for this film is what Rodney Welch from Blogcritics.org says:
“Ingmar Bergman’s Shame is a film about the way war destroys not just bodies but souls, and it has all the forceful clarity of a true masterpiece.”
While I agree the Shame can be termed a masterpiece, it is absolutely not about the destruction of the body and soul. Instead, it is about their survival in the face of evil and carnage. And its greatness is precisely because of its ambiguous nature dealing with these complexities, not because of any ‘clarity’! Even its title conveys the complexities dealt in the film. The shame is not just over war or killing, but it is over the various things people must do to survive. Also, for the Rosenbergs it is about their infidelities, their infertility, their inability to continue creating art, among other things. Some other characters feel shame over their cowardice, or lust for power; for instance, Jacobi and Filip – who cannot even bring himself to finish off his enemy – thus forcing Jan to kill the man.
Then, there are the misinterpretations of the film on a micro level, such as that of Bergman scholar Marc Gervais, who provides the film commentary on the DVD. Like many other critics, he claims that Jacobi is a Quisling who has collaborated with the Invaders. But this is clearly and demonstrably wrong, for Jacobi is with the original Fascist government. As proof, the Invaders are repelled after they invade the Rosenbergs’ land and film their agitprop interview. We know this because the government that later questions them about the fake interview – during which words were put into Eva’s mouth – see it as proof of the Rosenbergs’ treason. Jacobi is clearly working with those Fascist Big Brother statists.
Also, Jacobi is in charge of deciding which of the townsfolk accused of having collaborated with the Invaders are sent to concentration camps. The Rosenbergs are again among those spared. And in his seduction of Eva, Jacobi tells her his son is on leave from the military. Clearly, if he was an Invader, he would not be speaking so happily of his son serving the state. (Not to mention the fact that rebel forces are not official armies, and do not grant official leave.) Lastly, Filip is clearly with the rebels, or Invaders, of the Organization. Why would he have killed a colleague?
That Gervais and other critics so blatantly and wantonly misinterpret and miss such a key and manifest point in Shame brings into question their ability to discern any other aspects of Bergman’s films.
Shame is a great film. It stands very highly in the Bergman canon, though it is disappointing to realize how few critics and viewers have really understood its complex message. Instead, they generally opt for the cheap, lazy, and easy claim of its being merely anti-war, and a rather simple work when compared to Bergman’s two showier predecessors. And that, in the long run, is the real shame of Shame.
Skammen / Shame (1968). Dir.: Ingmar Bergman. Scr.: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.