Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Skammen (Shame)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Eva:Sometimes everything seems just like a dream. It's not my dream, but someone else's, that I have to participate in. What happens when the one who dreamt us wakes up and feels ashamed?

A desolate place, Fårö is a sparsely populated island off Sweden's southeastern coast with less than 600 residents. According to wikipedia, the most reliant source on such things, the island doesn't have banks, post offices, medical services, or even police. And yet, life goes on as it has for countless generations. It is an old place, with its own unique dialect called Fårömålet, that has been purported to be the oldest language in the whole of Sweden. The dialect is derived from the Gutnish language, itself a relic of medieval Scandinavia. Here, in this ancient island where ancient people speak an ancient tongue, Ingmar Bergman and his 40-man film crew set up to make a movie dealing with one of the most ancient themes known to man: war. Well, perhaps that isn't correct. The movie is not about war, but about the people who are unfortunate enough to get caught in the crossfire. From this subject matter, Bergman would create one of his ultimate masterpieces, a film simply titled Skammen, which translates to Shame.

Skammen is one of Bergman's more unusual works. It is not unusual for its characters, its set pieces, or even its cinematography. What sets it apart from most of Bergman's other work is that the conflict that drives the plot originates from an outside source. In most of Bergman's great films, his characters have to struggle with inner demons (Through a Glass Darkly, Wild Strawberries), family issues (Autumn Sonata, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage), and other tribulations resulting in various degrees of existential angst. The rare times that the conflict does not originate within the characters themselves, it is usually from some supernatural force such as Death in The Seventh Seal and The Devil in The Devil's Eye. Even in movies like The Virgin Spring where the conflict arises from the murder of the girl by three travelers, it is assumed that they appeared in the first place as a result from a curse placed by her jealous sister. But in Skammen, the conflict does not come in the form of a couple of travelers, a mental disorder, or even a supernatural force. No, the conflict is provided by bombs. Bombs in the night. Bombs dropped against the enemy, whoever they may be. In Skammen, the conflict is forced upon the characters and the movie deals with how they try and cope.

But perhaps I have been too vague. As in any review, a brief summation of the characters involved is called for. There isn't much to tell. The story focuses on a couple living in Fårö played by two Bergman regulars. The man is Jan Rosenberg, played by Max von Sydow. The woman is Eva Rosenberg, played by Liv Ullmann. They are both are musicians and indeed, a picture of Richard Wagner can be spied on their wall. They are in love but manage to still have the arguments that most couples experience: Eva wants children, Jan does not. Jan sometimes gets weepy, Eva must comfort him. It becomes apparent that Eva is the strongest one in the relationship and so on, and so on, and so on. Who they are is not of importance in this story. It is what they are that makes them such fascinating figures in the context of this film.

They are two people who are living in denial. Denial of what, though? Denial of war would be the quickest answer, but no, Jan seems to get very emotional whenever it is discussed. Denial of each other? In a Bergman film, there could be a million ways to interpret the relationships between various characters. Far be it from me to provide a definitive answer concerning the status of their relationship. But for all intensive purposes, they seem to get along well enough. No, Eva and Jan are in denial of something much more important: reality, itself. Consider the fact that they are two musicians living on the island of Fårö. On an island that doesn't even have a post office, what possible use could there be for two musicians? No, they are two useless people that have nothing to contribute to their society. There is a war, but they don't care. Why bother talking about whether or not you might get bombed tonight when you can talk about how much wine you have left. They accept a fish from a neighbor. Had it occurred to them that the neighbor may not have any other food? It is a war, after all. On such a remote island, how do they get food in the first place? But that doesn't matter, Eva must see to Jan who is crying again.

They are two people who have done the best they could to isolate themselves from the world and society. That is why it is so shocking when the world literally comes to their front door carrying automatic rifles. What possible use could the island of Fårö have for an army? Why invest so much military power on such a sparsely populated island? It doesn't seem to matter. It's there, so it must be taken. The sight of warfare itself is jolting in the context of a Bergman movie. We have seen military might before, such as the tanks in The Silence. But even then, they are only glimpsed at through windows while the characters concerned themselves with other matters. But here, things are much different.

Bergman wrote in his book "Images: My Life in Film":

To make a war film is to depict violence committed toward both groups and individuals. In American film, the depiction of violence has a long tradition. In Japan, it has developed into a masterful ritual, matchlessly choreographed. When I made Shame, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint.

We see people die. We see one side come in and occupy only to be driven out later by the other side. Eva and Jan are abused along the way. First, they are forced to give a fake interview supporting the invading occupiers. Then, when they are routed by the other side, Eva and Jan are punished for the interview. There is no escape for them. They try to avoid the war, it comes to them. They try to be compliant, they are punished for it. They exist in a catch-22 extraordinaire. An almost literal damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.

In the meantime, the war goes on, people keep getting killed, bombs keep going off. At some point Eva and Jan make friends with a colonel played by Gunnar Bjornstrand. The story progresses and eventually Eva sleeps with him. But why? Is it because she hopes to get pregnant and get the child she always wanted? Is it a kind of passive aggressive blow to Jan who denied her what she wanted most? Or is it because she simply wanted to garner favor with him in the hopes that they will finally be left alone again?

Whatever the reason, the movie ends with Eva and Jan lying with other people in a cramped boat while they flee the island. It is reminiscent of the opening scene when Eva and Jan lie next to each other in bed while their alarm clock goes on and on and on and on. In the first scene, they don't have a care in the world. In the last, they have to drink from a communal jug of fresh water as their new “bed” carries them off to an uncertain future. Their lives have been shattered, their relationship challenged, and all they can do now is just flow with the boat.

So now we return to the title, Skammen. Bergman originally wanted to call this film The War, and then later it was changed while he was writing the script to The Dreams of Shame. What shame? Is it the shame that the characters feel? All we really have to go on is the quotation by Eva listed at the beginning of this review. One reviewer that I encountered online said that this shame would belong to God. If he were to look down at his creation and see the misery inflicted by war upon innocents like Eva and Jan, would he not feel shame? Well, that interpretation is fair enough. But I feel that it is inadequate. The war only comes to the forefront of the story in the last half of the movie. The first half documents Eva and Jam's everyday life. Why would it be God's shame if it focuses so emphatically on them for half the movie?

The answer is of course debatable. But I would like to suggest one more possible interpretation of the title. It concerns the director himself. Bergman was extremely dissatisfied with the finished product of the film. He believed only the second half that involved the actual war was worth anything. Dissatisfied with the script, dissatisfied with the production, dissatisfied with the end result, maybe the shame spoken of concerns the director's own. But then again, I may be reading too deeply into matters that in reality are not of much importance. If that's the case, then shame on me.







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