When Ingmar Bergman’s “Shame” premiered in 1968, the critic Renata Adler was quick to offer an interpretation. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, she asserted that “the shame of the title is God’s.” Indeed, throughout his career, Bergman elucidated existential questions of faith and fate. Adler’s analysis, however, misses what is for me the most disquieting element of the film. Perhaps God feels disgrace somewhere off-camera, but on camera no deity exists. Bergman unabashedly explores the foibles of mortals. Throughout the film, he reveals that people who seem ordinary can commit the most shameful acts of all.
“Shame” is set in an unidentified country and concentrates on a married couple, Eva and Jan Rosenberg. Since a war has broken out on the mainland, they have moved to a small island. Jan and Eva do not seem predisposed to become politically active. Although Bergman cast the accomplished actors Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in the parts, the characters seem to be completely ordinary. They argue over inane affairs—Eva forces Jan to get up early to take the produce to market, and Jan does not find Eva’s work in the field satisfactory. They have quotidian aspirations—they want to start a family before they’re too old to have children. In one aspect, Jan and Eva are unique. They are artists. Before they were forced to flee the mainland, they played in a prestigious orchestra. Jan still treasures his cello and hopes to be able to perform again in peacetime. For both of them, music is pure and transcendent, representative of their uncomplicated lives before the conflict. In a certain sense, they adhere to the painter James McNeill Whistler’s doctrine of art— “art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone…and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”
When the war arrives, however, “claptrap” consumes everything, even music. Jan’s cello is ruined when a stray bullet hits it. He will never perform again. Most of their dreams die more slowly. Surrounded by wreckage, Eva quietly and mournfully states, “I guess we’ll never have children.” The atrocities of war force Eva and Jan to change, but they never adopt an ideology. Instead, their main aim becomes survival. To achieve that end, they have to become as cruel as their oppressors. In the penultimate scene of the film, they discover a soldier hiding in their greenhouse. He has deserted the army, and he is looking for a place to sleep. In a frenzy, Jan drives him out with his gun. Eva pleads with Jan to show some mercy, but he is desperate to take the soldier’s boots and extract some intel from him about a refugee boat. If von Sydow and Ullmann seemed underutilized in earlier scenes, here, Bergman’s casting is richly rewarding. The fight that Jan and Eva have over the soldier is reminiscent of their earlier squabbles, but now, life and death hang in the balance.
Others around Jan and Eva are even more callous. Revolutionaries destroy their home and their livelihood, laying the entire island to waste. Eva comes across a young child that they have run down in the road, and Jan finds a parachutist that has been left to die in a tree. After an armistice is declared, Jan and Eva try to negotiate with the new leaders of the government. They discover that they are not young punks looking to upset the system, but wizened politicians. On the surface, they seem perfectly decent. The people who authorized atrocities present a veneer of kindness that masks the coldness of their souls.
Bergman made “Shame” in 1968, when inhumanity seemed ubiquitous. The film was released in September. By that time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy had already been assassinated. Soviet troops had already crushed pro-liberalization protestors in Prague. Riots had occurred outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A few days after the film was released, student activists in Mexico City would be slaughtered by government troops. Throughout the year, the war in Vietnam continued to escalate. Other filmmakers had more pointed rejoinders to the events of 1968. The director Haskell Wexler captured the violence at the Democratic convention firsthand, and the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard threatened to quit making movies altogether.
Yet, “Shame” is perhaps a more powerful statement, because Bergman’s analysis of wartime atrocities is not constricted by its era. Strangely, while watching the film, I was reminded of some 1915 photographs showing the lynching of Leo Frank. Frank was a Jew who lived in Georgia, and he was the manager of a factory where a young girl was murdered. With no evidence whatsoever, anti-Semites in the town quickly decided that he was the culprit. Although the governor urged caution, some were unwilling to wait for justice. A mob abducted him from the county jail so that they could lynch him. The photographs capture the moments after Frank died. He is hung from a tree, his head bent toward heaven. The killers gather around him, their faces visible. Some even stand on tiptoes to be present in the photograph. They all seem like common people, but they are proud of their crime.
The person who took the image is anonymous, and perhaps he was a part of the mob. Still, his photograph is valuable, because it shows that terror in the Jim Crow South was not just carried out by vigilante groups of hooded men. How can this unthreatening group have done something so horrific? “Shame” ponders this paradox. Ultimately, Bergman cogently considered the nature of both God and man.