Shame

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Feb 11, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Ingmar Bergman has been held up by scholars and filmgoers alike as one of the greatest Swedish filmmakers to have lived - if not one of the best directors of all time. When 1968 rolled around, he had numerous international successes and critical darlings in his repertoire, and would produce a trio of thematically-related films within a year-and-a-half of each other to further renown. All three films, though performing differently at the box office, would achieve various levels of critical adoration, eventually being considered some of the best of the 20th Century when viewed retroactively. The middle release of these works was the “little war” film Shame, which explored the concept of personal shame, morality, and socialized violence through the experiences of unwilling bystanders.

By the mid-60s, Bergman was one of the strongest powerhouses of film production in Sweden, with his personal film companies employing the upwards of hundreds of professional employees. While he had written the screenplay for Shame in 1967, he initially produced the notable horror film Hour of the Wolf, which was met with negative criticism in Sweden. However, he had made a bulk of the film (and his 1966 masterpiece Persona) on the island of Fårö in the Baltic Sea, and Bergman was so enthralled by life on the island, he not only decided to make his next two films (Shame and the 1969 tragic romance The Passion of Anna) in the same location, but he would move there to live off-and-on for nearly a decade.

Shame centers on Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann), a pair of former violinists-turned-lovers trying to get by on a rural island during a nameless civil war. Jan’s selfishness and escapism is a constant topic of argument between the two, affecting their marriage and their desire to have children. Though the pair are emotionally connected to one another, Jan takes little responsibility for his part in their relationship, often falling conversations back to his weak heart getting him exempted from serving in the national military. While rumors on separatist troops drawing nearer plagues the dinky nearby town, Jan brushes it off as typical blowharding, putting very little stock in its eventual effect on their life. However, after the island takes a hot seat in the conflict, the couple are forced into the ideological fight between the government and the rebels, with their outlook on life irreparably damaged.

When it first debuted in the International Cinema Incontri, followed by a national Swedish release by Svensk Filmindustri in September, 1968, it was met with a largely positive critical reception. It would open in the United States by United Artists/Lopert Pictures less than two months later to additional acclaim and a mild box office. Shame was selected as the Swedish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 41st Academy Awards, but was ultimately not accepted - it would be nominated for the 1969 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Shame would be sold on DVD and VHS through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 2004, but would not have any other release until the re-release by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray in 2018. The Criterion copy is available as a solitary release and as part of the thirty-eight feature film box set Ingmar Bergman's Cinema.

While often being seen as a then-contemporary critique on the devastating Vietnam War, Bergman would continually refute these claims, though stating, “the war should have been over a long time ago and the Americans gone.” However, when viewing this film through a historically-contextualized lens, it is impossible to ignore that some aspect of the global conflict is present in the movie - though the strongest wartime allusion is to the atrocities committed during World War II. The longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist injected a naturalistic vitality to the film’s cinematography, managing geometric designs within each frame while accentuating the naturalism and kinetic atmosphere of a shaken warzone. The performances from Sydow and Ullmann are (of course) brilliant and numerously layered in emotional trauma and complicated social norms, which all evolve in startling ways.

The film’s sense of how different individuals process and showcase shame and desperation deepens with every scene, with little to no respite from a perpetually increasing hell for its players. Even in the moments of silence where seemingly nothing is happening (such as when Eva is waiting in the car for Jan to get his coat from their house) the characters are quiet riots of swirling emotions and spite, and nothing ever gets better. This is a classic Bergman film where depression and apathy are the norm, and happiness is a mystical unicorn everyone chases blindly, though all aware that it’ll never actually be caught. The ending compounds this fact, and it’s fairly bitter, melancholic, and downright beautiful.

The Criterion Blu-ray boasts a swath of captivating supplemental features to buttress its 2K digital restoration (with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack) of the original film. A fifteen-minute interview with Bergman, an excerpted press conference for the film, and an advert for Swedish television all give a fascinating context on how Sweden was preparing for the new movie, and how Bergman was viewed as a leader of the national film industry. Ullmann gives an enthralling exclusive Criterion interview, which is further supported by the feature-length 1968 documentary An Introduction to Ingmar Bergman, made during Shame’s production. All of this is rounded out quite nicely by a lengthy and well-written essay by film critic Michael Sragow included in the Blu-ray’s box.

Shame isn’t spoken of as much as Bergman’s other classics (namely The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, and Fanny and Alexander), but it absolutely deserves every ounce of its recognition and continued acclaim. Arguably the most outrospective of Bergman’s filmography, it still manages to maintain deep emotional resonance and technical brilliance, providing a heart-wrenchingly poignant experience that is equatable to other great wartime contemplations, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Truly a masterwork that has and will continue to endure.

(https://www.criterion.com/films/28877-shame)




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Prize Lava
February 16th 2019
12:32am

For a long time Bergen colleague Sven Nickquest gave injections of natural vitality to the cinematography of the film and managed geometric designs in each frame, explaining the naturalistic and dynamic atmosphere of the dispersed battlefield.