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SHAME (SKAMMEN)(director/writer: Ingmar Bergman; cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; editor: Ulla Ryghe; cast: Liv Ullmann (Eva Rosenberg), Max von Sydow (Jan Rosenberg), Gunnar Bjornstrand (Col. Jacobi), Birgitta Valberg (Mrs. Jacobi), Sigge Furst (Filip), Hans Alfredson (Lobelius); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Lars-Owe Carlberg; MGM Home Entertainment; 1968-Sweden-in Swedish with English subtitles)
“A bleak parable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Apolitical filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (“Cries and Whispers”/”Hour of the Wolf”/”Sawdust and Tinsel”) directs a bleak parable, set in a peaceful bucolic farm setting. It tells about the misery war causes on everybody involved, as there’s no way of avoiding it once it starts. It aims to force us to face the reality that either side in war is capable of inflicting great cruelty and that war acts to dehumanize us as it exerts external forces we often have no control over. In this allegorical war drama, neither sides’ positions are stated and Bergman wants it made clear that it doesn’t matter who is “right” or “wrong,” as he wishes to make a blanket statement condemning all wars as wrong. For the Swedish filmmaker, there’s no room for such arguments of a war being fought for good versus evil (I wonder how such a smug generalized anti-war statement like that would fly with the Holocaust victims of Hitler’s extermination policy!). Despite its good intentions to voice the sentiment that it is the ordinary frightened masses who bear the brunt of all wars and that it’s the responsibility of intellectuals and artists to be actively involved during peacetime to prevent future wars, the filmmaker seems to be only apologizing for those who don’t speak up or those who fail to hear the ones who try to find ways to prevent war and not for those who just might be evil warmongers. Unfortunately, the latter are the monsters no one ever reaches. In any case, as it’s the filmmaker’s want, the “Shame” of the title is God’s. Bergman blames God for allowing others to speak vainly in his name as a force for good.

The childless Rosenbergs, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann), are a bickering but loving couple who dwell in 1971 on a remote unnamed small island off the coast of their unnamed country. Their country is embroiled in a civil war, a war the intellectual apolitical couple stay aloof from. They are both classical violinists who moved here four years ago when their orchestra disbanded; they eke out a modest living raising and selling loganberries in their greenhouse, and continue to play their instruments for fun and at social functions. When the enemy attacks the island, the couple gets caught up in the civil war as they must both confront the enemy rebel invaders to convince them of their solidarity and then are falsely accused by the empowered regular country leaders for being collaborators (as evidence a newsreel interview of Eva’s is re-dubbed into a message of support for the rebel forces). An anguished Eva says “Sometimes it’s like a dream. Not mine. I’m forced into someone else’s dream.” Their misfortune leads the couple to realize that the only honest feelings they have about their relationship is shame, as they will do anything to stay alive. Colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Bjornstrand), the island’s mayor and an old friend of the couple, is in charge of the army defending the island, and he schemes to have the innocent couple released but only if Eva will have sex with him.

It ends on a pessimistic apocalyptic vision of an uncertain future, where the couple and other refugee islanders must row to safety across waters bloodied with dead soldiers to another island that is so far free of combat. It’s provocative filmmaking but offers a rather weak and empty intellectual academic statement that has trouble being credible if held up to the glare of the hard-edged realities of the world, where sometimes the least favorable option of fighting back is the only viable one and pacification at any cost is the most futile: the choice of cowards and not great humanitarians.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”