Monday, June 1, 2009
The recent Memorial Day weekend inspired a surfeit of war-themed movies on television. Turner Classic Movies, AMC, and other channels seemed to be showing one war movie after another all week long. The subject was covered as well by movie bloggers. Richard Hourula at Riku Writes, who writes frequently about war movies, posted a list of a dozen war movies as a follow-up to a previous post just a few months ago on 25 memorable war movies. He once accounted for his fascination with war movies by remarking that the pressures of wartime seem to test individuals, to place them in situations that bring out their essential human qualities. It's a perceptive observation that explains why war has inspired so many movies. Most of the great directors, both American and foreign, have made films about warfare, and often these have been among their very best works.
Movies can express radically different attitudes toward war. They can be as partisan as the hundreds of patriotic films turned out by American and British studios during World War II, as anti-war as powerful films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, or in rare instances as detached as Jean Renoir's great movie La Grande Illusion. So rich is the genre that it has many identifiable sub-genres—from combat movies to prisoner-of-war movies to movies about holding down the home front to movies showing the aftermath of warfare as populations transition back to peace—a clear indication of the fertility of the genre. What nearly all war movies have in common though is that they are set within the context of a specific war. We know who the two sides are and at least roughly why they are fighting. And almost always we know on which side of the conflict the screenwriter and director stand.
This was not the approach taken by the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman when he decided to tackle the subject. Previous films by Bergman had dealt peripherally with war. In The Seventh Seal (1957), the medieval knight played by Max von Sydow is returning home from one of the crusades when he has his famous encounter with Death. In Persona (1966), the actress played by Liv Ullmann, who has had a nervous breakdown and stopped speaking, is haunted by images of Buddhist monks in Vietnam immolating themselves to protest the war then happening in their country. The movie Bergman made next, Shame (1968), was his first to deal exclusively with war.
But unlike other filmmakers, Bergman made a point of making the war depicted in Shame as non-specific as possible. About all we're really sure of is that there is a war raging in the unnamed country where the movie is set. We don't know why the war started or what the issues are. We're not even sure who the two sides are or what political philosophies they represent. One side calls the other invaders; that side calls themselves liberators. There are indications that this might actually be a civil war of some kind and that this labeling of the other side as invaders or oppressors is simply an example of wartime propaganda.
Shame opens in a darkened bedroom with two people sleeping in separate beds. An alarm clock rings, and one of the two figures stirs but does not rise. The other figure, a woman, snaps awake, sleepily gets out of bed, flings open the curtains, flooding the room with light, and walks to a jug and basin and begins washing. The first figure, a man, lingers in bed a few moments then slowly sits up, puts on his eyeglasses, takes a pill of some kind, and sits there with a stony and dispirited expression on his face. The two people are Eva Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann) and her husband Jan (Max von Sydow), former violinists in a symphony orchestra that has disbanded because of the war and who now live as refugees in a primitive farmhouse on a remote island, where they grow lingonberries. Their existence here is not so much one of bleakness as of life reduced to its essentials. Their house is lit with oil lamps but they have a battered old station wagon, and a telephone and radio that sometimes work.
Later they sit at the table eating breakfast. She is dressed and ready to begin their day, which will consist of taking the ferry to another island to deliver two boxes of lingonberries. He sits in his pajamas, unshaven, and tells her of the dream he had—that they were once again playing in the orchestra and that the life they live now was behind them, like a nightmare. "I woke up crying," he says to her. This first sequence tells us a great deal about these two people by showing us the way war has affected them and influenced the dynamics of their relationship.
Eva is resilient. Self-controlled without quite being cold, she organizes and regulates their life together. She has not lost her capacity for pleasure even in the face of the straitened conditions and political uncertainty in which they live. When they sell their berries for more than they anticipated, she suggests buying a bottle of wine to celebrate. Nor has she altogether abandoned hope for the future. As they drink the wine together outside under a tree, she talks animatedly to Jan of her love for him and her desire for children.
Jan, on the other hand, is close to being a broken man. Like most depressed people, he has turned inward, dwelling on his misery, and with the exception of Eva seems scarcely able to connect to those around him. Moody and withdrawn, he is emotionally dependent on Eva's nurturing strength and barely able to keep going from day to day. He can no longer even play his instrument. He may even be impotent. Not only do they sleep in separate beds, but Eva's talk of children, of their emotional commitment to each other, and of their future clearly makes him uncomfortable. He accuses her of being angry all the time; she accuses him of being weak. "Pull yourself together," she tells him at one point, impatient with his self-pity. "I do."
So far Jan and Eva seem to have adjusted to their life in exile, and if they must endure a certain amount of physical deprivation, at least they appear to have escaped the conflict raging on the mainland and to live in relative safety. Their comparatively peaceful life soon collapses though. As they sit under the trees sipping their wine and chatting, the rural silence is suddenly shattered by the scream of low-flying jet fighters racing across the sky. One of the planes explodes, and running toward the wreckage, Jan finds its pilot hanging from a tree. From this point on, Jan and Eva experience the full gamut of the horrors of war.
Their farm is invaded first by enemy troops, then by local troops. Arrested and accused of collaboration with the enemy, Jan is interrogated and beaten while Eva listens from the next room. They are subjected to stage-managed psychological intimidation then arbitrarily told by Mayor Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand), supposedly a friend of the couple, to return home. He tells Jan that the authorities knew he wasn't a traitor, "but we had to make an example of you." Making their way home, Jan and Eva wander through a stark, bombed-out, burned-out landscape of devastation.
After returning home, they are visited by the mayor, who makes an overt sexual pass at Eva while Jan looks on. Later Jan sees them together in the greenhouse, where they appear to be having sex. At this point guerrilla fighters, who have been hiding in the woods, show up looking for the mayor and in a powerfully dynamic sequence completely wreck the house, smashing everything in it, and finally blowing it up. During this long sequence the only sounds are those of the house being destroyed. Afterward, Jan finds his antique violin lying outside in the dust, smashed to pieces, and this, along with the discovery of what he believes to be Eva's betrayal, is the final blow to his humanity. The loss of the last meaningful connection to his former life and of Eva's fidelity causes him to lose his moral bearings completely: when the guerrillas put a pistol in Jan's hand and demand that he execute the mayor, at first he drops the pistol in revulsion, then hesitantly picks it up and shoots the mayor several times.
This is the first but not the last time in the movie that Jan kills. After the guerrillas leave and Jan and Eva are living in their greenhouse, an exhausted young soldier turns up, and Jan seizes his rifle and leads him down the road. Jan returns alone, carrying the young soldier's shoes, and tells Eva that a boat will be leaving for the mainland soon. Shocked at what Jan has apparently done—"You killed him for his shoes?" she asks, incredulous—and at what he has become, she at first refuses then agrees to go with him. The last scenes in the movie show the couple clinging to each other as they drift, along with a handful of other refugees, in a small open boat on a vast sea that fills the frame.
By stripping all specific context from the war happening around Eva and Jan, Bergman focuses on the human effects of war on those unwillingly caught up in it, making Shame one of the most moving of all anti-war films. Jan and Eva are completely apolitical. They don't understand what this war is about, and they support neither side. The thrust of the film is entirely on the effects war has on these two people, who are trapped in an unreal situation and want only to avoid its harsh consequences.
Yet the war's toll on them is great. It destroys Jan, causing him to lose not only his dignity, but also his humanity. Bergman may allow the camera to linger almost obsessively on Liv Ullmann's expressive face, radiant in its unadorned, earthy beauty. But it is really von Sydow, his face growing progressively more haggard and his expression more tormented as he slowly unravels under the soul-destroying experience of life during wartime, who is the center of the movie. The war also destroys Jan and Eva's marriage by turning their relationship from one based on love and shared values to one based on necessity and desperation. A relationship based on the desire to share a common future devolves into one based on dependence on each other for physical and psychological survival, and characterized not by mutual respect but by mistrust and suspicion.
Shame, like Bergman's best films, strikes a precisely calibrated balance between the thematic and the narrative. I have always thought of Bergman as the most literary of the great film directors. By this I mean that his movies function simultaneously on both the intellectual and the human levels. His movies deal with ideas, but they also deal with complex and clearly defined individuals interacting in compelling situations. Perhaps it is Bergman's background in theater that accounts for this ability to explore weighty, abstract subjects through emotionally engaging stories that are both personal and specific.
Shame is an incredibly dense movie. At just 103 minutes, fairly short by current standards, it is far richer in narrative incident than my cursory description of the plot indicates. Bergman weaves into the film's plot incidents that touch on a remarkable number of the ramifications of war—among them the control of entire populations through mass psychological manipulation, the use of film as a propaganda tool, the devaluing of beauty and art, and the sanctioning of inhumane impulses that would never be tolerated in peacetime. Its quiet early section—with its depiction of a static, almost ascetic life—draws the viewer in before suddenly giving way to a vision of constantly accelerating instability and the inexorable disintegration of the tentative security that Jan and Eva have found in their island refuge. Its visualizations of the violence and destruction that occur as a result are memorably vivid and truly harrowing.
Bergman's perennial subject is personal suffering. In Shame the source of this suffering is not internal and spiritual as in so many of his films, but external and specific. Shame deals not with existential pain, but with man-made pain. In this sense, it is a movie for those wary of Bergman. There are no dreams or hallucinations, no religious allegory, no obscure symbolism, no abstruse reality-and-illusion puzzles. Its plot is calculated to drive home in a realistic way the simple message that war is humankind's most cruel and dehumanizing creation. By limiting the scale of the military conflict in the movie and concentrating on its toll on ordinary non-participants, Bergman created a timeless anti-war film that still has great relevance more than forty years later. If you have any doubt about that statement, just watch a news program or read a newspaper with good international coverage, and note how many stories deal with small-scale regional conflicts like the one depicted in Shame and their effects—the fear, pain, confusion, and humiliation—on local populations and on individuals like Jan and Eva Rosenberg.
Many thanks to Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark for helping me locate a copy of Shame.