American war movies almost always follow a set pattern. I can think of few exceptions. A young draftee, or an older civilian, is thrown unexpectedly into an armed conflict. The first taste of combat leaves him feeling unnerved, poorly prepared to face the prospect of an imminent death. Sometimes, like Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, he becomes a capable, yet quickly disillusioned veteran. At other times, think of Timothy E. Upham from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, he initially reveals himself to be a coward, but then manages to redeem himself as a man and as a soldier. At still other times, like Luke Skywalker or Buster Keaton’s Johnny Grey, the hero is a natural born hero. An American, once confronted by gunfire, at least in American cinema, rarely if ever fails to measure up.
As a Swede, Ingmar Bergman doesn’t have the luxury of that fantasy. Sweden, surrounded by neighbors like Germany and Russia, and not having the natural protection of Switzerland’s mountains, has always preserved a careful neutrality. The Vikings are ancient history. Gustavus Adolphus has mostly been forgotten. Shame’s Jan Rosenberg, even in the form of the 6’4” Max von Sydow, is an effete sissy who can’t keep his wife satisfied, and who devolves into a quivering mass of nerves at the slightest hint of danger. Like Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner in Sam Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs, his closest relative in American cinema, Rosenberg eventually becomes comfortable with the idea of killing. Unlike Pekinpah, however, Bergman doesn’t approve of his hero’s transformation. As the movie beings, Eva Rosenberg, his wife played by Liv Ullmann, can’t stand him. At the end, she hates him even more. Rosenberg starts out as a coward. He ends up as a thief and a murderer. Shame is not widely discussed these days, but if you put me on the spot, I’d probably rank it as one of the best war movies ever made. The only American film that even comes close is Robert Aldrich’s now almost completely forgotten Attack, but Attack is a movie about soldiers who know what they’re getting into. Shame is a movie about innocent civilians who get caught up in a civil war they don’t even understand.
By 1968, Ingmar Bergman had fallen out of fashion. At one point his students at the Stockholm University even walked out of his class to protest the overly bourgeois nature of his movies. Shame opens pretty much the way those students would have expected, with a high-bourgeois married couple dealing with their marital problems away from the larger political issues of the world. Jan and Eva Rosenberg are two classical musicians living on the tiny Baltic Island of Fårö which is just off north of the island of Gotland, which, in turn, is just off mainland Sweden’s southeastern coast. While Fårö’s population of just under 500 people might indicate that it has no strategic value, and that the Rosenbergs’ decision to sit out the war on a small farm, far away from civilization, was the right one, they are soon proven horrifyingly wrong.
In the first twenty minutes of Shame, you think that the biggest problem Jan will have to deal with is the lack of proper dental care. He has a bad wisdom tooth. But Shame’s transformation into a war movie is so jarring and so sudden that neither of the Rosenbergs, nor the viewer, even quite recovers. What makes Shame so effective is how it puts us in the shoes of an ineffectual bourgeois couple trying to avoid war, then hits us hard with the very war they’ve been trying to avoid. I’ve rarely been quite as terrified watching a 48-year-old art movie as I was when a group of F-86 Saber jets roars overhead and napalms the forest running alongside the Rosenberg farm. Bergman puts us in the place of a Vietnamese peasant being attacked by the Americans. You feel a visceral disgust at the environmental degradation, but also horror that the next attack might destroy your ability to feed yourself. When paratroopers fighting to overthrow the government surround the farmhouse, grab Eva, and coerce her into making a quick propaganda film, it’s probably the most effective dramatization of the vulnerability of women in the face of an occupying army I’ve ever seen. Eva is far braver and far stronger than Jan, but when confronted by a platoon of men with automatic rifles sticking a camera in her face she reacts like any of us would. She’s not only terrified and confused, she’s positively disoriented. This is what “shock and awe really looks like.”
After the paratroopers leave, we hope, like the Rosenbergs, that the worst is behind them. It hasn’t even started. Once Shame has declared itself a war movie, the action never lets up. The Rosenbergs, who are scared but not quite over the belief that they can sit out the war without taking sides, are never allowed to regain their equilibrium. The disintegration hinted at during the films opening minutes is mirrored by the disintegration of civil society all around them. The very bourgeois mentality that convinced them they could sit out the war – the idea that the world has an order that will eventually be restored – is what makes them so spectacularly unprepared for the trials that await them as the conflict goes on, and on, and on. The internment camp they are taken to after they’re captured by government forces and accused of collaborating with the rebels, is all the more terrifying because of Bergman’s low key approach. The torture is clumsy and believable. The bureaucrats who run the camp aren’t monsters, but citizen bureaucrats – think PTA members on weekend duty as prison guards — “just doing their jobs.” The Rosenbergs’ release, the permission to go back to their farm, is no release at all. They are not free. On the contrary they have become clients of a powerful man, Colonel Jacobi, who fancies Eva, and who believes he can coerce her into becoming his mistress.
It doesn’t take much coercion. It’s not so much that Jacobi, played by long time Bergman collaborator Gunnar Björnstrand, Squire Jöns from The Seventh Seal, is a good man trapped in a bad system. He’s a horrible man. He threatens to send Eva to a concentration camp is she doesn’t fuck him, but he’s really not that much worse than her husband, whom she now utterly loathes. In Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs, David Sumner uses the violence of their attackers, and his effective response, as a club to beat his wife back in line. In Shame, Jan tries to do the same thing with Eva. He fails, miserably. As Jan becomes more and more comfortable with violence, Eva becomes wiser and more compassionate, a witness to the horrors of the war raging around them, Liv Ullmann’s face a mirror that reflects back the dissolution of the civil society she never thought she’d be called upon to defend. After the rebels retake the farmhouse from government forces, and Jan gets to kill Jacobi, Bergman takes little satisfaction in the execution. It’s clumsy, cruel, and, more importantly, realistic. Jan doesn’t become Dirty Harry once he gets his hands on a gun. He can’t shoot straight. Jacobi’s death is drawn out, painful torture, not a quick bullet through the head. When a young government deserter, barely seventeen or eighteen, shows up at the farmhouse, Eva wants to feed him and give him shelter. He pleads that he’s hungry and hasn’t slept for days. Jan coldly murderers him for his new pair boots.
Shame closes with Jan and Eva trying to escape Fårö by sea. They succeed in getting off the island, only to end up trapped in a watery hell. That, Bergman has demonstrated, is what war is like. Even though Jan and Eva have developed in opposite directions — Jan towards evil and Eva towards good – they wind up in the same place. It makes no distinctions between male, female, hero, coward, child, adult, government loyalist or collaborator, good or evil. In the end, it sends us all to the same meaningless grave. François Truffaut once said that it was impossible to make a genuinely anti-war film. He was wrong. Shame is that film.