Shame (Bergman, 1968)

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Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 masterpiece is one of his finest achievements, probing the caustic, calcifying shame of war and, as if with a blunt instrument, the forces that irreversibly alter our moral perspective and the wavering identity of our own humanity.

On a small, remote island two former concert violinists, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) live in the lengthening shadow of a civil war that rages on across the waters. They exist simply, tending to their small farm, struggling desperately to make ends meet whilst combating tedium. Though they love one another, offhand, antagonistic remarks may be evidence of tiny fissures opening up in their relationship. In Jan, Eva perceives weakness and resistance to fully grasp the enormity of their situation. He would rather retreat and take solace in headaches that seem manufactured to divert attention from his more glaring masculine shortcomings.

The opening half hour is a mundane examination of the couple’s uneventful routine, which includes sojourns to the mainland to sell their modest range of crops. All this is meticulously established, belying the confusion to follow. When trouble arrives it seizes them with fear and uncertainty, upending the secluded domesticity that has cocooned them until now. Fighter planes roar by, explosions sound in the distance, coming ever closer, and Bergman devises a set-piece to rip these people from their stasis, tossing them into an open cauldron where morality becomes blurred and destruction reigns.

There are no cultural or political indicators or side-taking in Bergman’s screenplay; his focus remains universal, intent on exposing the human experience to its instinctive core, throwing ordinary people against an allusive brick wall to see how they cope on a deeper, psychological level.

Shot with typically invasive depths of perception by Bergman’s legendary collaborator and friend, Sven Nykvist, the film burns with the intensity of gripping, realistic sequences that chart the tumultuous first invasion of the island and later, the demoralising turn of events that has far more frightening implications. As with all Bergman films there are a host of indelible images that linger in the mind like banshee howls of agony, and Shame is no exception.

You simply can’t put a value on the contributions Ullmann has brought to Bergman’s body of work. Every performance of hers is textbook perfect and yet informed by a technique that contains little you could ever learn from an acting classroom. Her ethereal beauty is only part of the mystique that surrounds her like an aura. Her haunted, extraordinarily expressive face stunningly encapsulates the horror, fear, joy, and physical surrender of every scenario Bergman sets before her on a page. She may well be the greatest actress of any era, pointed moments of close-up all too often revealing her mesmerising power and the camera’s love for her, whether in silent contemplation or bringing one of Bergman’s brilliant monologues to life.

It must be said that von Sydow is just as sublime, integrating the descent of man into his nuanced portrayal of the traumatised Jan, a man pushed to the point of madness by a mass of complex, seething emotional responses: greed, jealousy, bitterness. Bergman’s vision of disintegrating minds is characteristically dark and uncompromising. The disquieting final section of Shame offers little in the way of hope or relief, enwrapping a few desperate survivors in the muted, wasted shells of their bodies, drifting to nowhere on a sea that is dead in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky, 1962)

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One of the most assured debuts in cinema history, Ivan’s Childhood (1962) marked director Andrei Tarkovsky’s arrival on the world stage. Shot in stark black and white, it remains an almost flawless classic nearly 50 years later. Intermingling themes of innocence lost with those of the dehumanising effects of war, we witness the first dazzling creative flourishes of a director who, even through a relatively minimal output, would leave an indelible mark on audiences in the decades that followed.

Ivan (Kolya Burlyaev) is a 12 year old boy sent into the front lines as a scout extracting intelligence during wartime. Contrasting the idyllic opening – an alternate glimpse at a version of childhood annexed by the impending tide of battle – with desperate scrabbling in grimy, claustrophobic surrounds, Tarkovsky makes his distinction clear: there are no grey spots on this ruthless killing ground, especially in light of the consequences of a child being used as a pawn. Most saddening is Ivan’s riled-up enthusiasm for even more active participation, reciting his hatred for the Germans with the fervor of a battle-hardened general.

The cost of warfare is high by any measure, a potentially lethal exposure to a cruelty enshrined by death and dislocation. Though others around him – including soldiers barely out of their teens – try to placate Ivan and convince him of more time in a military academy, the boy decries their lack of foresight, demanding greater responsibility. But a sense of inevitable doom begins to worm its way into proceedings and with deliberate detachment the final scenes play out almost anti-climatically.

Startling visual creativity would become a Tarkovsky trademark and here he transforms the occasionally non-linear structure into an unnerving phantasmagorical dream. Little in the way of rugged warfare is externalized; rather, Ivan’s interactions and mental deterioration form the basis of much of the narrative. Gradually Tarkovsky mines deeper beneath the strata of the psyche of a boy coerced into participating in an horrific adult sphere, the innocence of childhood snatched from his grasp like a toy.

Unforgettable images appear with regularity through Tarkovsky’s lens: the opening crane shot as a beatifically contented Ivan imagines himself gliding over the land; Ivan’s view from within a well of his mother and sister’s murder; the ghostly white trees of the surrounding forests; and with greatest resonance – the fluid, impressionistic terror at the height of Ivan’s fever delirium, shot as a terrifying vision amidst the deterioration of his mind; here Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov meld the confined surrounds of a ruined church with a haunting of sights and sounds, both real and imagined, in what is surely the film’s most provocative and powerful sequence.

Tarkovsky’s extraordinarily expert grasp of cinematic language at such an early stage is matched by the towering performance of his miniature lead actor, young Burlyaev – surely one of the most remarkable by a child ever committed to celluloid. Though this important director would later progress to fully-fledged masterpieces like Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), films marked by their depth and maturity, Ivan’s Childhood is an impressive reminder of his stunning cinematic entry point.