Shame: Twilight of the Humans

Shame: Twilight of the Humans

On Film / Essays — Feb 5, 2019

Shame (1968) is one of the great neglected films from Ingmar Bergman’s midcareer creative explosion. It builds on and surpasses the two Bergman films that immediately preceded it: the avant-garde milestone Persona (1966) and the surreal shocker Hour of the Wolf (1968). These three films and The Passion of Anna, which followed them in 1969, all explore physical and psychological violence, collapsing and mutating personalities, and the gorgeous and menacing austerity of the Swedish coast. (Though the other three were shot on the director’s beloved Fårö island, for Hour of the Wolf he went to Hovs Hallar.) Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna also form an unofficial trilogy about couples under duress, all played by Bergman’s longtime collaborator Max von Sydow and the director’s muse at the time, Liv Ullmann. Bergman and Ullmann, who had become both colleagues and lovers during the making of Persona, lived together on Fårö throughout this productive period, though they would decide to split up while filming The Passion of Anna.

In Shame, a powerfully realistic vision of an imagined civil war, the filmmaker’s collaboration with his actors turns even more confident and fluid, and his celebrated enigmatic close-ups become unselfconscious and limpid—emotionally transparent. As the sixties neared their end, even Bergman, the screen’s foremost investigator of private life, intimate behavior, and postreligious faith, felt the need to make a statement on that turbulent decade and the legacy of World War II. His vision of how sadism and paranoia fuel martial conflicts and spread from society’s fringes into middle-class living rooms (and bedrooms) permeates Shame, the only Bergman film that could be called primarily political or antiwar. The relentless, Kafkaesque backdrop of a never-ending war puts a troubled marriage into stark relief, dramatizing the end of fellow feeling and the dehumanization of death. It reflects the social and political upheaval of its time in ways that are still joltingly pertinent fifty years later.

Bergman’s impulse to create the film was clear and concrete. As he told the editors of the Swedish film journal Chaplin, it originated in a question: “What sort of a situation is needed to turn us from good social democrats into active Nazis?” He latched on to documentary images of an aging Vietnamese couple—an old woman hanging on to their “half-starved cow” as it gallops away from a U.S. military helicopter, her husband fighting back tears as he sees her and the animal disappear in a cloud of dust. Then he fused these inspirations. 

In Shame, Bergman scrapes the polite liberal veneer off postwar European life and puts Scandinavian islanders in the position of a colonized people. The film takes place in the near future (the early seventies). Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Ullmann and von Sydow), former classical violinists, have moved to a remote island to escape the civil war ravaging their unnamed country. They eke out a living selling produce they grow on their small farm. The white opening credits unspool on a black screen as machine guns and artillery fire punctuate polyglot scraps of newsreels and broadcasts. This audio mélange is the opposite of white noise. It signals that the war is closing in on Jan and Eva, their existential dodge catching up with them. We feel their alienation in our bones. The movie picks up with the couple shortly before shock troops surge in from the sea. Eva is already losing patience with Jan’s pettiness and escapist nostalgia.

As empathetic as it is immersive, Shame opens up our senses and emotions even when it depicts atrocities.

Neither Eva nor Jan becomes a Nazi over the tense 103-minute running time, but Jan devolves into a cold-blooded killer determined to survive at any cost. Eva, a sturdy, instinctive humanist, abhors his cruelty and brutality, yet she can’t endure this apocalypse without him. As empathetic as it is immersive, Shame opens up our senses and emotions even when it depicts atrocities. With heartrending clarity, Ullmann and von Sydow evoke the harrowing effects of war and the disintegration of an intense, tangled relationship. 

Bergman never before or after wove his personal agonies and ecstasies into a sociopolitical tapestry as fully and incisively as he did in Shame, but his oeuvre does contain other points of civic engagement. He described The Silence (1963)—his vision of a fictional city where the natives speak an opaque, invented language, and a tank rumbles eerily down an empty, narrow street at night—as depicting “the collapse of an ideology and a way of life.” And in The Passion of Anna, a sequel of sorts to Shame, the Vietnam War unfolds in the background on television and an animal killer commits multiple atrocities; the social fabric is deteriorating, even as the ultimate horror begins and ends at home for the main characters. Those breakdowns relate directly to what Bergman told his Chaplin interviewers about the politics behind Shame: “It’s extremely important that the social democracy should really fix its ideals. In my opinion, it’s a shame it isn’t doing so.” Certainly, he views the Rosenbergs as the kind of morally aware and sophisticated citizens who could be counted on to vote for the Social Democrats in the sixties. In the film, he suggests that their privileged lives were based on civilized routines, not true ideals or principles. At one point, in a tragicomic epiphany, Eva cries out to a squad of enemy troops that she was “first violinist in the philharmonic.” Jan is lost without music—to Eva, to the world, and to himself. It makes poetic sense that a weak heart has kept him out of the war.

Shame is a threnody for a lost world of shared culture, ritual, and myth, but it is a vivid and robust one. Bergman fills the movie with indelible details that remind us of what we ought to mourn—or, better, preserve. At the start, the Rosenbergs’ marriage, like their part of the country, exists in a fractious limbo under a thin veneer of normalcy. Unable to fix their phone or radio or tune their rattletrap car, Jan sinks into melancholy. He isn’t as helpless as he looks: he’s a master of emotional judo. His pathos may irritate Eva, but it also plays on her sympathies, and his yearning for old pleasures—a bottle of wine, for example—still attracts her.

In a lovely, lyrical passage about twenty minutes into the film, Jan and Eva eat the fish she has bought from a neighbor, alfresco, and share their desires at the picnic table. Never before had Bergman encouraged his actors to dream up a crucial scene off script, yet he trusted Ullmann and von Sydow to wing this idyll, and their improvisation is inspired. She wants to learn Italian, and to have a child, believing a baby will solve their problems. (She leaves unsaid that doing so would also prove their faith in the future.) Jan thinks they should wait, and stay in practice as musicians. He insists that he can change his personality, which she considers “selfish,” whenever he wishes. We see how this couple might have thrived in a peaceful life. Their rapport is easy, their postures conspiratorial, their faces alive with possibility. All of that will disappear as they run the gauntlet of gunpoint interrogations and impromptu showdowns to come. 

“With ghastly beauty, Bergman transforms the stuff of breaking news into a secular Armageddon.”

The war soon ruptures their peace. Fighter planes scream overhead, spewing fire; a paratrooper falls in and out of sight. The visuals are so striking in this black-and-white movie that we can sense the heat and the bursting yellow-red of the flames. Bergman biographer Geoffrey Macnab reports that Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist “achieved the trompe l’oeil effects on Shame [by] burning down miniature churches and making tiny streams into turbulent rivers.” But the vigorous density of the images and, later, some strobelike pyrotechnics are what give their sleight of hand its shuddering impact. In the first attack, Bergman and Nykvist foreground Jan, who’s watering plants; Eva, who’s feeding white cabbage to a rabbit, rushes into view through greenhouse windows. The jets concuss the atmosphere and upend the Rosenbergs’ small world. Ulla Ryghe’s editing intensifies each shock: she cuts surgically from shrieking planes to Jan and Eva covering their ears as they sink to the ground. We seem to plummet into the core of the action—and Evald Andersson’s sound effects do their best to keep us there. Jan claws his way through an aural wall of cannonades as he makes his way to the dying paratrooper hanging from a tree. 

Indistinguishable armies in sluglike helmets accost the Rosenbergs in succession. The local forces warn them about swarms of invaders. The would-be occupiers wield a camera and question Eva for a propaganda film, then doctor her evasive remarks into a fiery prayer for their victory and her country’s release from oppression. Vilgot Sjöman, the provocative director of I Am Curious—Yellow (1967) and I Am Curious—Blue (1968), plays the savvy interviewer. He strives to portray the Rosenbergs as admirable specimens of “the sort of people we’ve liberated.” He attempts to nail down their “political affiliation” and coerces Eva into agreeing that she’s “taken a stand.” But it’s just hollow rhetoric. The war has dragged on so long that the couple find it impossible to choose between, or sometimes even to recognize, the sides. At night they huddle together for animal warmth and support. Jan now reassures her: “We’ll have kids when peace comes.” Eva responds: “We’ll never have kids.” The script says, simply: “For them this is the first day of the war.” 

Nykvist, a legendarily speedy cinematographer, brings remarkable precision to this section’s handheld, newsreel style. He unerringly focuses our attention on Jan and Eva, no matter how much his camera wobbles. His bracing lucidity and closeness to the characters make us experience anew, with tingling horror, sights familiar from decades of trouble-spot reporting: mass roundups, summary executions and commutations, the collateral-damage slaughter of innocent families, populations left to forage for subsistence. Heightened interrogations in a converted public school place Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” in a perfect bureaucratic context. 

With ghastly beauty, Bergman transforms the stuff of breaking news into a secular Armageddon. In Shame’s final act, he depicts a pseudopeace interrupted by insurgency. Every gesture or impulse becomes transactional, but not merely so—the ultimate sign of Bergman’s genius. The Rosenbergs’ supposed friend Jacobi (the remarkably forceful and responsive Gunnar Björnstrand), who has become the local administrator of martial law, capitalizes on his position to distract Jan with gifts like sheet music while coercing Eva into having sex with him. Thanks to Björnstrand’s splendid performance, we recognize that he is not just slaking his lust; he’s also restitching his own frayed pockets of feeling. 

The marriage continually worsens, along with the couple’s makeshift way of life. While Eva doggedly furrows their potato field, Jan complains that doing so is pointless. As their interchange grows heated and he accuses her of “sucking up” to Jacobi, she slaps him and collapses in the mud. Throughout, Bergman gets us to feel what it’s like to be a displaced person in one’s own homeland. Human wreckage drops out of nowhere. When a boyish deserter abruptly takes refuge in their greenhouse, Eva’s face flashes with the hope of fresh human contact. With heartbreaking persuasiveness, Ullmann takes her character from youthful ardor to soul-shriveling despair and resignation. It’s wrenching to see Jan bullying her into submission with his newfound, cynical machismo. 

Eva never stops being the spiritual center of the movie. Midway through, she tells Jan that the war feels like “someone else’s dream . . . What happens when they wake up and feel ashamed?” Recounting her own dream in the film’s climactic moments, she says she strolled down a pretty lane across from a lush park. She came to “a high wall overgrown with roses, and then an airplane set the roses on fire. But it wasn’t all terrible because it was so beautiful.” Holding their small daughter in her arms, she “knew there was something I should remember; something someone had said. But I’d forgotten what it was . . .” Is that “something” a key to our lost humanity? Who knows? She has forgotten. 

Opening with the clang of an alarm clock and ending with Eva’s devastating poetic flight, Shame is both a wake-up call and a cri de coeur for Western civilization.