Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Left Field Cinema: Ingmar Bergman's Shame (1968)

Ingmar Bergman: Shame
Left Field Cinema

The late 60’s was a busy time for Bergman, in the space of four years he’d produced films such as Persona, Hour of the Wolf, The Rite, and The Passion of Anna. Whilst typically Bergman fans would accredit Persona with the high honors for this period of his career, and Persona is a truly remarkable film and one of Bergman’s best with truly cogent thematic explorations. However predilection is Shame for its darker story and combination and manifestation of both internal and external conflicts through possibly the most depressing, down-beat and unrelentingly bleak of all of his films.

The plot follows Eva and Jan Rosenberg played by Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow; they are a childless couple, and a pair of musicians. War has broken out on the mainland and to escape it they’ve migrated to an island and set-up a farm. But the war has followed them and hostilities begin again near their new home. Soon Eva and Jan find themselves in the midst of the bloody conflict again, being attacked by one side and then accused of collaborating by the other side, abused by figures in authority and corrupted by their environment. They want to acquiesce to the demands of those around them but no matter which approach they attempt they help themselves and condemn themselves simultantiously. It is a film of two very clear and distinctive halves, the first being a long and rather plodding portrayal of our central couple’s existence as they elude the war directly but indirectly its consequences are still felt. The second half very literally starts with a bang and then doesn’t let up for what is a terrifying decent into hell. For this half any point where the situation doesn’t seem like it can get any worse it can and it will.

Shame is set in an unknown time in an unknown place which closely resembles 1960’s Sweden if only for the language and the weaponry. To clarify: it’s not set in any particular era and therefore presents a vivid demonstration of how quickly any civilisation can break down and destroy itself under duress. This is seen through the microcosm of Eva, and Jan, but also that of Jacobi (here played wonderfully by Gunnar Bjornstrand) a colonel who is a friend of the couple and lives locally. They are the central characters, typically of Bergman films he uses a minimal cast, there are plenty of supporting characters too, but the concentration is most definitely on the central three and using them to show the ability of human beings to violently change in times of war. Someone we perceive to be an honest decent person (given the right circumstances) could be a rapist, thief or murderer when given too much strain, or presented the right opportunity for them to be so. Someone with murderous impulses could have secretly restrained them for their entire lives as so not to break any of society’s laws against such activities, a war time situation then gives them a chance to be everything they’re murderously capable of being with the full endorsement of the state.

A similar film to Shame is Michael Haneke’s 2003 film Time of the Wolf a post-apocalyptic feature with a difference, cold blooded and brutal, this was the opposite of the Hollywood portrayal which often exhibit post apocalyptic worlds as rather cool places to be, The Matrix for example, worlds where conventional and common problems and worries like finance and job promotions are replaced with noble struggles and sexual freedoms. “Fuck anyone you want you could be dead tomorrow!” when the reality, as presented in Time of the Wolf and Shame is “rape anyone you want, you could be dead tomorrow.” The romantic vision of mankind united in a costly but righteous struggle to survive is replaced with the more accurate and realistic version of mankind falling apart and unable to stand together because of a collective greed brought about by our own innately selfish desire to “look out for number one” so to speak. This ignorance of the plight of others spreads to everyone, ignorance then begets ignorance and all are complicit in the destruction of civilisation as neighbors turn their backs on neighbors, friends are betrayed to save families and lives are lost to the ever increasing circle of violence.

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