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.