Shot as many of Ingmar Bergman’s films were on the Baltic Sea island of Fårö, “Skammen” (Shame) is very unusual among Bergman’s films in being a war movie. The war is a modern civil war in which the death toll of civilians is very high.
The isolated farmhouse of Jan and Eva Rosenberg (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) is burned. They are buffeted by armed forces from both sides of what seems to be a civil war, the reason for which they have no idea. Made in 1967 with a defoliation from the air reminiscent of napalming in Vietnam, audiences and critics at the time were quick to see parallels to Vietnam (albeit without an outside super power), especially since the last military conflict involving Sweden was in 1809.
Bergman himself suggested that he was interested in exploring how he (and his countrymen) might have acted and reacted if Nazi Germany had not respected Sweden’s neutrality. If this is what the movie is “about,” the answer is “badly.” “Shame” is one of a series of movies in which Max von Sydow plays a man whose personality disintegrates (“Hour of the Wolf” verges on being a horror movie with this; the sequel to “Shame”, “The Passion of Anna”). One interpretation is that war pushes him to be more macho, to take decisive (lethal) action, unleashing dormant inhumanity (the Woman remains humane).
What Jan does is opportunistic. When he is not reeling in confusion, he becomes crafty and kills people. (He was already sullen and craven at the start of the movie, in common with many males in Bergman movies.) The point of view (as usual in Bergman movies) is that of Liv Ullmann’s character, who is on the side of Life (wanting to have a child despite the conditions of uncertainty, and who takes pity on others stunned by events and savagery).
In Sweden Bergman was blasted by Sara Lidman (in the newspaper Aftolbladet) for acquiescing in granting “the contemporary Western intelligentsia total freedom from responsibility for Vietnam for turning this war into a metaphysical issue.” Bergman replied: “I do not know of any party that is for frightened and terrified people who are experiencing the period of dark.” (Liv Ullmann has become something of such a party in subsequent decades, as Marc Gervais points out both in the commentary track and in a bonus feature.)
Seeing the movie in the 21st century, with consciousness of the civil wars that have killed and displaced many people since 1967, the movie seems more apt and not at all decisively linked to Vietnam.
Ullmann considers it a highlight of her career. In retrospect, Bergman was quite harsh in judging that “the first half, which is about the events of war, is bad. The second half, which is about the effects of war, is good. The first half is much worse than I had imagined, the second is much better than I remembered.” He recalled that “for a long time I had carried around the notion of trying to focus on ‘the little war,’ the war that exists on the periphery, where there is total confusion, and no one knows what is actually going on” (Images: My Life on Film).
I think he was too harsh in dismissing the first half. Actually, he still liked the slow domestic bickering introduction of the Rosenbergs. The visits by bristling troops from both sides are IMHO quite good (so much better than in Godard’s “Les carbineiri” for sure). The last part is visually stunning and forlorn, and as I’ve already said, I think the movie’s focus on neighbors killing each other for vague reasons makes the confusions and betrayals of humanity relevant long after the war of attrition in Vietnam-and in Europe (as well as Africa and the Mideast).
I don’t think there is any doubt that Sven Nykvist was a great cinematographer. Bergman himself said that Nykvist could make films without Bergman but that he could not make films without Nykvist. “Shame” provides a greater range of light tonalities than some of the closed-in chamber dramas. Editor Ulla Ryghe (who had also cut “Persona” and “Hour of the Wolf”) builds on the handheld shots in the second half with more frequent cuts. Cameraman and editor (and presumably director) also worked together in letting Ullmann’s inner light shine through, by staying on her face longer than on those of other characters (there are quite a few, of whom the most familiar is Gunnar Björnstrand, who plays the mayor of a village on the mainland or a larger island, where the Rosenbergs market their produce).
The DVD has an English track not dubbed by Ullmann and von Sydow, so I watched it in Swedish with English subtitles (French and Spanish are also available). There is a not very enlightening 4-minute 2002 interview with Ullmann, the best parts of which are also in the bonus feature. That also has some 1970 interview footage of Bergman in English, and comments by Marc Gervais, author of Ingmar Bergman: Magician and Prophet, whose commentary track I found irritatingly reductive and not very informative (the same is true of his contributions to the featurette on the Criterion Edition of “Persona”. Plus a trailer and a gallery of 55 production stills.
In some ways, “The Passion [of Anna]” is a sequel with Ullmann and von Sydow back in a Kingdom of Hell (cruelty to animals) shot on Fårö. I find “Shame” and “Cries and Whispers” quite searing, and prefer 1950s Bergman films to these 1960s ones (even “Persona”).