There's no shame in reading Judge Dan Mancini's review of Ingmar Bergman's take on the "war is hell" theme.
Sometimes everything seems just like a dream. It is not my dream but somebody else's that I have to participate in. What happens when the one who dreamt us wakes up and feels ashamed?
Ingmar Bergman tries his hand at a war film.
Facts of the Case
Jan and Eva Rosenberg (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna) are one-time orchestra musicians living on an isolated island during a time of civil war. Their simple life as vegetable farmers is turned upside down when the combatants find their way to the island.
Under duress, Eva provides a filmed interview for one of the warring factions, which is then edited and dubbed into a propaganda film. This lands the couple in a detention camp controlled by the other faction, who believe them traitors.
Colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand, Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, Persona), a local leader and good friend of the Rosenbergs, is trying to play both sides in order to maintain his influence and avoid being sent to the war's front. He uses his pull with the occupying military to free the Rosenbergs. But when he demands sexual favors from Eva in return for his grace, Jan is faced with his greatest crisis of conscience.
Shame is an odd war film indeed, but Bergmanesque to its core. Its fiercely intimate examination of the effects of war on a married couple strips armed conflict of its political ramifications and reveals it as an absurd but somehow inevitable human evil. The Rosenbergs are apolitical, middle-class artists whose interests don't extend much beyond quiet conversations with friends, a good bottle of wine, art, and music. When war finds them in the film's second act, they respond like small children stuck in a house with bickering parents: baffled, terrified, and wishing they could find a good place to hide from all the noise. Bergman forces us to share in their helplessness by giving us little information about the conflict we witness. The jet planes that fly overhead in one scene tell us this isn't World War II, but we have no information that places the conflict within a specific political or ideological context. Violence in the form of falling bombs or ruffian soldiers is indiscriminate, unpredictable, and, therefore, harrowing. Soldiers all look the same, so we can never tell which side they're on and what they're after. Like the Rosenbergs, we're victims, herded around and threatened by one side or the other, though we have no stake in the conflict. The breakdown of the couple's basic humanity is a gut check for us: What might we do if faced with such horror and forced to choose between decency and survival?
This specificity of emotional texture, coupled with the absence of political polemic, would be enough to make Shame an entirely original take on the war film genre. Thematic complexity is increased exponentially, though, by the presence of Bergman's standard character types. Jan Rosenberg is the epitome of a Bergman male, craven, narcissistic, and childish. Shame is one of the films from the dark period that followed Bergman's exploration of God and faith in Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. Like Persona and Hour of the Wolf from the same period, Shame is deeply nihilistic and focused on the psychological and moral breakdown of character, the complete loss of personal identity. Jan follows such an entropic arc, but his initial infantilism makes one wonder if the war has eroded his psyche or merely amplified the selfishness that defined his character long before the violence began. By making Jan less than sympathetic from the outset, Bergman makes it all the more difficult for us to affix ideologically specific interpretations to his film. The nature of Jan's fall is as rooted in his own moral character as it is the violent circumstances in which he finds himself and, therefore, any attempt to assess the film's themes through particular ideological lenses leaves one on shaky critical ground.
If Shame has a universal message, it is that war is an absurd evil that is rooted in and amplifies the selfishness and vanity endemic in the (male) human psyche. As such, the film is of a piece with Bergman's entire oeuvre, which presents women as resilient keepers of life, burdened by weak men who desire but cannot achieve perfect emotional and sexual connection with them. After all, it's not the general condition of war that finally breaks Jan. The war creates the environment in which Jan's survival depends on his giving Eva to Jacobi sexually. It's a blow to his ego, we learn soon enough, that he cannot tolerate. Wars, presumably, emerge from this sexualized and essentially Freudian interplay between male egos. For Bergman, then, the universal is rooted in the personal. Politics and ideology only provide a context through which we justify the worst fruits of our human weakness, selfishness, and fear.
Shame's cinematographer was regular Bergman collaborator, Sven Nyqvist (Persona, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage). His work here is startling in its range and power. Domestic scenes play out with the utmost simplicity, often in unbroken two shots that allow the camera to drink in the actors and setting, and give maximum space for the actors to achieve complex, nuanced performances. When war's chaos descends on the Rosenbergs in the film's second act, Nyqvist switches to shaky handheld shots, reinforced by brisker cuts by editor Ulla Ryghe (Persona, Hour of the Wolf). But Liv Ullmann's performance, more than anything else, benefits from Nyqvist's luscious black-and-white photography. He lingers on her in close-up far more than any other actor in the film, not only capturing her natural beauty but enabling her to give one of her most dynamic performances in any Bergman film. Nyqvist's photography, far more than Bergman's words, establish Eva's strength, resilience, and the depth and complexity of her emotional experiences. We feel more sympathy for her than Jan not just because of the way the characters are written, but also because we're allowed to gaze at her in lengthy shots in which her face fills the frame, establishing emotional intimacy between character and audience.
MGM's transfer does a fine job capturing the beauty of Nyqvist's exquisite photography. The full screen transfer in this reissue fixes some compositional crowding in a disc issued by MGM a few months back, misframed at 1.66:1 and subsequently recalled. Nyqvist's work sports an amazing amount of detail, both in close-ups and long shots, and the DVD reproduces it well. The image is balanced, natural, and perfectly reproduces the deep scale of grays, as well as solid blacks, and whites free of any mud or bleed.
The DVD offers two-channel mono mixes in both the original Swedish and an English dub. The Swedish is the default option, yet English subtitles must be manually activated via menu or remote (French and Spanish subs are also provided). I listened to the Swedish track, and it's surprisingly detailed for mono. The dialogue-heavy portions of the film are rendered perfectly, and the few scenes where bombs drop or machine guns are fired have surprising oomph.
Marc Gervais, author of Ingmar Bergman: Magician and Prophet, provides a commentary that is both casual and informative. His delivery is conversational, never sounding as though he's reading from notes. It's the track's strength, but also its weakness as Gervais begins to repeat himself. Particularly awkward is his refrain each time we're confronted with a dramatic climax underscoring Bergman's themes, "the name of the movie is…Shame." And his otherwise crisp analysis occasionally bogs down as he tries, half-heartedly and without much concrete detail, to apply Bergman's ruminations on war to modern conflicts (read: Vietnam or Iraq). Still, these tangents are fascinating and enlightening because the more Gervais attempts to view Bergman's film through the politics of a particular world conflict, the more difficulty he has maintaining a firm grasp of the depth and scope of the director's vision, which steadfastly refuses to be treated reductively. All in all, Gervais provides excellent detail, context, and insight into Bergman and Shame, and the track is well worth a listen.
Far less impressive is the 18-minute featurette, The Search for Humanity, which provides an overview of Shame by way of a 1970 interview with Bergman and modern-day interviews with Liv Ullmann and Marc Gervais. The piece is a high-level gloss that lacks focus. For example, Sweden's shifting loyalties in World War II, as well as its awkward Cold War position of being allied to the West but in close geographical proximity to the Soviet Union are mentioned as possible sources of Bergman's political ambivalence, but each subject is dropped almost as quickly as it's raised. The piece's biggest problem, though, is that I can't remember it offering a single insight that isn't covered in more detail and to better effect by Gervais in his talk track.
A photo gallery offering approximately 55 production stills, and Shame's original theatrical trailer round out the extras.
One final note: The back of the keep case lists the film's running time at 93 minutes. This is a misprint. The DVD houses the full 103-minute cut of the film.
Shame is a war film like no other. If you haven't seen it, do so. You won't be sorry you did.
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• The Search for Humanity Featurette
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