Watching Ingmar Bergman’s “Skammen” (Shame) was a weird experience. Not because of surreal symbolism like in “Persona”, but because I watched people in Sweden exposed to war. Now, that may sound odd, but war is something I always associated with, you know, war zones. Second World War sites, Vietnam, the Middle East or more recently Syria or the former Yugoslavia. Sweden is like the entire opposite. I think the last war they have experienced must have been one of our failed invasions in the eighteenth century. Watching Swedish soldiers battling it out on Swedish soil with civilians subjected to all the terrors of war was downright surreal.
Except, all those scenes are so very familiar from many other parts of the world and seeing it happen in Sweden just reminds us that it could happen anywhere.
The point of view here is from a young couple, Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max von Sydow), who lives secluded on a island, almost oblivious to a war that is raging. While not exactly bliss, their life is quiet and simple, and they talk of getting children. Sure, they are no longer musicians in an orchestra, but they get by and they have each other. Then as the war truly arrives to their little world everything is tossed upside down. In that process they are compelled to do despicable things and the change makes them self-loathing and angry and they come to despise each other.
It is this personal development that is at the heart of the movie, while the war itself is a strange, undefined monster that is simply there. We never know what anybody are fighting for, but that they do, and that fighting brings up the worst in people. With guns you become powerful and in the war context you can abuse that power freely and with the erosion of the moral foundation this power is more and more freely abused to the detriment of the human soul.
Eva and Jan experience getting abused for propaganda, to be arrested and interrogated. They have to suck up to those in power to give them what they want so they can survive, and they get their home destroyed by people looking for plunder. Jan degrades to the level where he kills for a pair of boots and Eva prostitutes herself to those with power.
The final scenes where they are refugees, drifting helplessly in a boat in open water ties up to our current reality, and symbolizes how alone and ruined they have become.
I consider this one of the better of Bergman’s movies, mostly because it is easier to decode than most and successfully brings home the points it wants to make, but also because it is a more difficult movie to make. A typical Bergman movie will place a handful of people in a room to act it out. Here there was an elaborate setting that played along. We did not in any way lose the personal and existential aspect, but the external played a part too. It is also successful in that it is truly disturbing to watch, even downright depressive. Nothing good comes out of war, not for the people inflicted by it and Bergman’s story does not pretend anything else. Watching people’s humanity get eroded and eventually stripped from them is not amusing, but it does not change that this is a good movie that works very well at what it is trying to say.
I would definitely recommend this movie, especially to those not used to Bergman’s movies, but it is not for a Sunday afternoon with the children.