Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand
Dinner is wine, fish, vegetables, bread, butter. Eva (Ullmann) and Jan (von Sydow) sit outside on a bench underneath a tree, not so far underneath the tree that many shadows fall on them. This scene looks primarily at Eva over Jan’s shoulder. He frequently holds her face in his right hand. In return she smiles clearly, candidly, and her blue eyes twinkle transparently in the black and white photography. For warmth and gentleness, it’s a scene unmatched in Bergman until Christmas at the Ekdahls, and like that later work there’s still a little acid baked in. In Fanny and Alexander, the post-dinner discussions are troubled and wary, sometimes even to the point of outright shouting. Eva, in a similar way, does not hold back. You’re a very selfish person, she tells her husband. But she also has an eye on her future with this selfish man, one who has cheated on her before but who she has always been faithful to. Eva tells Jan that she wants a child by the time she’s thirty, wants three children when all’s said and done. Maybe the reason we fight so much, she says, is because we don’t have a child. She’s wrong, and Jan must know she’s wrong, and if she were to think for another second or two, she would know how wrong she is too. They fight so much because the two of them are displaced. Both of them are musicians of significant quality in a country where there is no more need for art. They have been reduced to a faulty radio, a telephone that they pay for but can’t use, a car that doesn’t start easily, a smallholding where they grow enough to subsist on and a few lingonberries to tempt the local mayor, Jacobi (Bjornstrand). The threat of war hangs over them like a curtain closing on a play, and when it comes they will have no proof it’s coming before the low-flying jets scream past. There are rumors in town, as they learn from a shopkeeper frightened of being called up for action, that there could be an invasion in the near future. It turns out to be much nearer than Eva and Jan are ready for.
In so much of Bergman’s work, physical violence is made shocking and fresh through its limited scope. A single gunshot threatens to derail a great comedy in Smiles of a Summer Night. A husband strikes his wife while the divorce papers are on the table in Scenes from a Marriage. A woman uses little more than a shard of broken glass to sinister self-mutilating effect in Cries and Whispers. Shame, for all of its distant explosions, subsonic peals, artillery barrages, and general war symbolism, functions in the same way. By my count, only a single character dies onscreen, even though there are plenty of corpses lying about like macabre Easter eggs. Violence is done to the little island Eva and Jan have retreated to, and it is understood that when bombs strike the trees or bridges are stuffed up by fatally damaged tanks, the people must suffer. Eva kneels at the body of a child. The editor of the local paper is dead already by the time Eva and Jan are taken to the classroom where political prisoners are held. Apparently, Jan and Eva are lucky: they are the only ones for kilometers around spared by the invading army. The sharp edge of the war brushes Jan and Eva’s necks, but it’s the reconstruction which threatens them most. A partisan group led by a taciturn local whom Eva bought some fish from earlier in the film takes Jacobi basically from her house. Jacobi has brought his life savings with him, which Eva did not want to touch but which Jan finds and hides on his person. Jacobi tries to buy his life from Filip (Sigge Furst) and his men with the money; although Eva vouches for the money, Jan, having just learned about Jacobi’s affair with his wife, tells the soldiers that there is no money. The result is a fist of chaos. Jacobi is condemned. The soldiers utterly destroy what little remains of Jan and Eva’s possessions. Their chickens, which Jan couldn’t bring himself to shoot earlier in the film, are decapitated. Their kitchen equipment is smashed, their mattress shredded, their house burned almost to the ground. A 19th Century violin that is Jan’s treasure and, frankly, their one real remaining connection to their old artistic lives, is broken in half and thrown outside. Jan cradles the half-violin;. Eva weeps for her chickens. And Jan, when he is given the pistol, does not hesitate long to unload a few shots into Jacobi. It would be a violent scene for anyone, but for Bergman it is so in-your-face that it’s absolutely unforgettable. Yet it’s still deeply him; the blocking of the last few moments of the scene allows to see everybody as they circle around Jacobi as he tries to crawl away after being struck with a single bullet.
Shame functions as a high-level character study, too, noting how the husband and wife swap roles as the war takes hold. Before the war reaches their island, Jan is deferential, frightened, weepy. Before he and Eva go out to run errands one day, Eva tells him it looks like rain. He had better go in and get his leather jacket. She waits a few moments, thinks about it, swears, and goes inside to find Jan sobbing quietly to himself on the steps, his crooked elbow holding his head. It is hardly the only moment where Jan retreats into himself, into the comforting but flimsy embrace of his home. His violin is a comfort not because he still plays, but because it bears a long history, a long life filled with little glories and enough safety to keep it whole. This is hardly the same Jan who confronts a young soldier in a greenhouse. The soldier is a teenager at most, starving, exhausted. He has been up for days, too afraid to go to sleep, but with a little coaxing from Eva he falls headlong into her lap. Jan takes the gun from the boy, frogmarches him out of the greenhouse, learns about a boat leaving the island, and returns to Eva without the boy and with a new pair of boots. He has discovered the primary lesson of war, perhaps learned it when he actively betrayed Jacobi for his personal safety: shoot first, regret later. Eva quietly proclaims that she will not go with Jan to the boat after what he’s done. Suits me fine, Jan says. You’d be another thing I’d have to worry about. She comes with him in much the same way that Jan had gone into the house to fetch his jacket some time before.
Although Shame is a terrifically stark piece of filmmaking in many ways and scary in others—for both, I think about the forced interview with the seeming conquerors that Eva is forced to undergo—its most relevant and ugly elements are after the initial landing of troops. The government of the island begins collecting civilians who have collaborate with the enemy: thus the dead editor, who published an edition welcoming the new insect overlords. Eva and Jan are taken in because Eva’s interview (“Say more, tell us more” the soldier said, and we discover why with hearts in throats) has been dubbed so that Eva’s fairly milquetoast statement of her name and age and marital status have become a ringing endorsement of the “liberators.” For some time, probably mere hours but it could be much longer, the two of them are held with other presumed collaborators. Jacobi eventually intercedes for them, knowing that the video is a fake, but even more than the bombardment their interrogations are the first truly harrowing moments of the invasion. Eva is dragged out of the room, away from her husband, and deposited elsewhere. When Jan comes back, he reports having been hit about the head. Compared to their compeers in that little classroom holding cell, surrounded by drawings made by elementary schoolers, they meet a cast of similarly unassuming types. The editor is there, of course, not that he knows about it. One man is in such bad condition that he cannot get to his feet. Even the minister has been roughed up, given a dislocated shoulder. Don’t play tennis on that for a few weeks, a doctor tells him after fixing it. Sardonic as it is, it might be the final statement of good intentions in the entire film.