The late sixties were momentous times in Europe and the world over, and Ingmar Bergman had a message to tell. He needed to tell us of our collective shame – the shame in the way people are governed, wars waged supposedly on their behalf, and the shame of common peoples’ lives devastated by careless decisions made behind those closed doors of power. Do we have to live in such a society, Bergman pertinently asks through his achingly beautiful film, “Skammen” [Eng. Title: Shame].
Vietnam was just one of the theatres of wars waged around the world at the time the film was made, and apart from the blissfully ignorant (who unfortunately number many), few held any real hope for a peacefully coexisting world. Dehumanising images were regularly beamed across TV sets and splashed on magazines, and Bergman was desperate to tell us how these essentially meaningless wars impact ordinary people. With this premise, Bergman creates a complex clockwork of events and characters whose mechanisation will guide the protagonists’ behaviour, likening them to the hands of a clock – unable to change their destiny on their own. But this film is sadly even more relevant today, because we continue to repeat mistakes we’d hitherto sworn to reject, as though mutual destruction has become ingrained in our genes and we can’t help ourselves killing each other.
Jan and Eva Rosenberg are musicians who’ve retreated to an island after the orchestra they were working with dissolved. There’s been a war raging for over four years, and Jan and Eva have even forgotten what the war was all about. But then it suddenly arrives at their very own doorstep. Jan, an idealist, is self-centred and timid by nature, totally indisposed to confrontation of any type. Eva on the other hand, despite being deeply troubled by what’s happening around her, is dedicated to her husband, and dearly likes to mother a child, one that Jan isn’t too keen on. But she is also the one with initiative – the leader of the family. One day their farm is captured by the advancing ‘enemy’, who will then interview the couple and manipulate their words in order to make them sound as though they’re sympathetic to their cause. But soon the enemy is forced to retreat, and the local generals look upon the couple as possible collaborators, and they’re only saved from concentration camp by the intervention of their local Mayor. But the couple will realise the price for his kindness, after he starts frequenting their home with the aim of winning Eva’s favour. Their plight and the film’s message could be summed up in Eva’s prophetic words to Jan during a scene, “Jan, Sometimes everything seems just like a dream. It is not my dream but somebody else’s that I have to participate in. What would happen when the one who dreamt us wakes up and feels ashamed..?”
About the film:
Bergman made this film with a very tight budget, but it hardly shows. It may not have the grand scenes of a “Saving Private Ryan”, but the horrors of war and its psychological impact on people is illustrated quite magnificently nevertheless – it may be intensely bleak, but that shouldn’t put anyone off watching this gem of a film – it is cinema of the finest kind. With the superlative cinematography by Bergman-regular Sven Nykvist and sharp editing by Ulla Ryghe, not to mention the fine performances by his regular actors – Max von Sydow as Jan, Liv Ullmann as Eva, and Gunnar Björnstrand as the Mayor/Colonel, Ingmar Bergman has created another masterpiece that he should be anything but ashamed of. This beautifully crafted film is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
About the DVD:
This NTSC DVD is my recommended version, as it is a great transfer in its original aspect ratio, and is loaded with extras such as a Bergman featurette titled “Search for Humanity”, an on-camera interview with Liv Ullmann, and an audio commentary in English by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais.
Ingmar Bergman is noted for his exquisite compositions, and his films are a pleasure to watch even purely for the manner in which he frames his shots – any designer/artist/film maker will know what I’m talking about. Just take a look at this beautiful scene where Eva and Jan talk about their plans for the future. Liv Ullmann is captivating as it is, but here she is made impossible to look away from, thanks largely to the way this scene is framed. Besides, another interesting aspect of this scene is that it is improvised – the dialogues were made up by the actors themselves, quite rare an occurrence for a Bergman film. I’ve left the subtitles on so you can follow what’s going on.
One of the most beautiful and elegant actresses in cinema, Liv Ullmann is as talented as she is insightful in the manner in which she delves into her character. Ms. Ullmann also considers this film to be her personal favourite among all her cine projects with Bergman, partly because the film tackles a subject dear to her – her dislike of war. She was also a spokesperson for UNESCO and had travelled to most of the world’s hot-spots to propagate her message. In personal life, she was also partner to Ingmar Bergman when this film was made, and through whom she even bore a child. She holds Bergman in the highest esteem, and likewise I too hope to discuss more of her films in this blog.