Picked Flick #44: Shame
Ingmar Bergman's 1968 film Shame presents itself in as un-Brechtian a style as it possibly could, but the intelligence and the inclusiveness with which it examines war as a social and human condition are very nearly on a par with Brecht's. In Bergman's Persona, made two years previously, Liv Ullmann reacts with mute shock and terror to televised images of martial atrocities in Southeast Asia, and to the horrifying conviction of a Buddhist monk setting fire to himself in protest of man's inhumanity. War provides a crucial context for the vicious psychological retrenchment that Persona subsequently explores, particularly via the Ullmann character, but Shame confronts the issue in a much more direct and thorough-going way. Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Ullmann and Max von Sydow) are married concert musicians who live out a rustic existence on a Scandinavian islandfarming and raising chickens, struggling to get the radio and the truck engine to work, ferrying to the mainland for necessities and the occasional luxury indulgence. In Shame's first scene, Ullmann and von Sydow wake in their beds (not, crucially, the same bed), and as she rather brusquely dresses and washes her face, he forlornly recounts a dream of the previous evening. An undeniable chill, if not quite a hostility, exists between these people, though its relative severity will rise and fall through the first half of the film, sometimes warming to an optimistic intimacy, sometimes tumbling into a scary antagonism. Meanwhile, we learn quickly that whatever unnamed country of which the Rosenbergs are citizens, albeit quite secluded ones, has been rent for several years by civil war, whose armies might invade their own environs at any moment. In many films, even ones by Bergman, these dual narratives would serve as metaphors or reflections of each other: the on-and-off combat within the Rosenbergs' marriage and the literal war that, for now, is only visible in the processions of military trucks and the low-flying jets that occasionally pass overhead. The genius of Shame, though, rendered with stomach-turning immediacy and realism, is that we experience all of this as one narrative. The gnawing discontent between Eva and Jan is directly conditioned by the war; it is one of the thousands of tongues through which the war speaks. She expresses contempt for his tearful, paralyzed anxieties; he doesn't understand how she can listen to so much more of the radio coverage than he and yet reflect so much less sensitivity and fear in response; she wishes he would fix the fucking truck, partially so they will have a means of escape if marauding armies do appear, and partially because he's such a goddamned procrastinator in general. About a half-hour into Shame, with a speed, a potency, and a plausibility that are equally hard to bear, the martial conflict explodes at the Rosenbergs' very own door, frightening them to their cores, annihilating their privacy, and serving to draw them back together but also to make them scowl even more deeply at each others' shortcomings. Again, these personal clashes are not sidebars or collateral effects of the war: they are part of what war is. As circumstances deteriorate even further in Shame, so too do the relations between the Rosenbergs.
Along with how it pervades our personalities, slips under our very skins, the other vile and best-kept secret of war is its shapeshifting ability. Like a flammable liquid, it pours itself into any space or vessel, and is prone to ignite anywhere. The second half of Shame, now that the Rosenbergs realize how immersed they are in the crisis, shows how arbitrarily they are pawned between the opposing factions, how their friendships and their enmities become hopelessly confused, how in a very Brechtian fashionif not, again, in a Brechtian idiomwar becomes a marketplace for terrible barters, including sexual ones, which give onto their own cycles of self-defeating revenge. If I'm making Shame sound like harrowing viewing, then I'm doing it justice; few films are so excoriating in their images or their trajectories. But there is nothing abstruse or reductive or inaccessible about it: it doesn't need manichean figures of good and evil like Platoon, or peekaboo movements in and out of the maelstrom like Saving Private Ryan, or even the ornate and remote meditative koans of The Thin Red Line. Ambitious and indispensable as Malick's movie is, its motivating quarry is the philosophical knot of war, whereas Shame draws the rutted map of war's psychology, in bold and grievous strokes recognizable to any audience, and liable to frighten and humble them all. Ullmann, exquisitely forceful and believable in her role, has exactly one Bergmanesque soliloquy about the states and layers of being and suffering, but even this builds to a ringing, legible, and haunting conclusion. Imagining the war-torn world as the collective nightmare of humanity, of a global conscience in a restive, inattentive sleep, she asks herself, "What happens when the person dreaming all of this and all of us awakes, and is ashamed?" (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)
Image © 1968 Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films.