Shame 1968

Directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1968, this film was supposedly in part a rejoinder to the criti­cism levelled against him that his films were out of touch with current events, partic­u­larly the horrors of the Viet­namese war. Rather than make a conven­tional war film about soldiers, Bergman focuses on two civil­ians. His film is typic­ally small-scale and personal but no less effective for that.

In Peter Brook’s play US about the Vietnam war, put on the same year this film was released, a char­acter played by Glenda Jackson has a speech in which she wishes the war to come to England: “I want it to get worse! I want it to come here!” Starting with the same idea – that war can only be under­stood at the level of personal exper­i­ence – Bergman brings it to his own door­step: a small island setting (like the one where he himself had his home).

Jan and Eva (played by Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) are ‘artists’ like Bergman – musi­cians in this case – living in peaceful rural isol­a­tion until a conflict erupts around them. Swept up in it, they are power­less and frightened; buffeted back and forth by the power struggle taking place.

The message at the heart of the film is the complete opposite of most war films, where war is often seen as some­thing that is horrific but also some­times cath­artic. Here, it is simply degrading. Viol­ence is always shameful and the ‘shame’ of the title describes the brutal­isa­tion and the loss of humanity that war inflicts on people.

Char­ac­ters under pressure

In many dramas, when a char­acter comes under pres­sure, the dramatic tension derives from their will to resist. But there is no sense here of the enormity of killing as an act. Instead, it is like a shameful initi­ation, some­thing ugly that is reluct­antly witnessed by the char­ac­ters and by us the audience.

Jan is the weaker of the couple and there­fore the one who succumbs to brutality more easily. Bergman seems to be saying that, in the inverted values that war imposes, it is the weak not the strong; those who capit­u­late, who are prepared to surrender their humanity more readily; that survive and appear to prosper – but at a terrible price.

That price becomes evident as the film unfolds. The execu­tion portrayed in this scene is the begin­ning of a process of strip­ping away that ends in a moral vacuum with the prot­ag­on­ists liter­ally cast adrift.

It is a haunting image and further evid­ence if any was needed, of Bergman’s clarity of vision and his instinct for what reson­ates on the screen.

David Clough ©2011

Shame: second extract

Jan and Eva, encounter a young soldier who is part of the defeated insur­gency group. Eva offers to help him but Jan has other ideas.

Further reading

Article on Ingmar Bergman by Philip Strick, The Movie 1986

What to read next

Leave a Reply


Site Index