Bergman in ‘68: Envisioning Disaster in Shame


Though its political viability was highly contested upon its initial release, Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 war film Shame offers reprieve from the survival fantasies that dominate contemporary disaster media. The film was clearly disconnected from the deliberately jarring tendencies employed by political cinema in the late 1960s, most notably Godard’s irreverent Weekend (1967), and alienated critics who felt Bergman’s existential anxiety and pristine formalism were dated and overly restrained. In contrast to Godard’s polemical didacticism, Shame unfolds with a startling, even anachronistic, uncertainty. The film’s limited scope excludes the political basis for the war, the motivations for its opposition, and treats the main characters as both perpetrators and victims. Consequently, violence erupts from, instead of merely disrupting, the protagonists’ lives, values, and marriage. In the midst of our current reactionary love affair with disaster, Shame reveals patriarchy and property as the basis for both society and its destruction.

On the heels of the highly contentious UN climate talks and the extraordinarily devastating typhoon Haiyan, mainstream disaster cinema’s tendency to hinge survival on masculinity, the acquisition of goods, and mastery over nature, is an unsettling elision of the basis for recent cataclysmic events.

Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Steve Almond attributes the genre’s current commercial success to its frequent depiction of Darwinian fantasies.[1]   Instead of articulating unbridled indictments of consumption, militarization, and ecological abuse, popular visions of Armageddon frequently hinge human survival on a return to family values, reassertions of masculinity, and rural fantasies. During the last decade, dystopian fictions including AMC’s blockbuster The Walking Dead (2010), Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road (which was adapted for film in 2009), the epidemic thriller Contagion (2011), and the teen romance How I Live Now (2013) have all offered family and ingenuity as sources of comfort and salvation in a world gone horribly awry.

Such media treat the apocalypse as a revelation of the essence of humanity instead of God’s will. On The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes, a handsome but troubled police officer from suburban Georgia, guides the fellow survivors of a zombie apocalypse through the countryside as they learn to scavenge, find shelter, handle firearms, and inflict blunt trauma on their undead foes; the competent protagonists live on, or heroically sacrifice themselves for their compatriots in a fantasy that proposes strength and family as humanity’s most authentic attributes, and the key to its survival. 

Writing in the early 1990s, Mick Broderick described the reactionary ideology of contemporary disaster cinema, arguing that survival narratives located humanity’s salvation in the restoration of patriarchal order and social harmony.[2]

With modern life, all of its complexities, and its abundance of options decimated, characters may return to the straightforward and uncontested goals of a wilderness fantasy. The widespread, media-fueled panic surrounding 9/11, subsequent proliferation of moral simplicity, and ultimate acceptance of the restorative power of nationalism, security, and militarization, has nurtured these narratives, bolstering fantasies of the unfailing, and necessary perseverance of American, capitalist values.

In a gleeful tribute to The Walking Dead, published in anticipation of the program’s third season, New Yorker columnist Erin Overby attributed its success to the skillful adaptation of the western, noting: “the zombie apocalypse represents the latest frontier to be conquered.”[3] Each week, the serialized program’s characters strategize their long-term survival with hopes of building a new life for themselves. The program tethers the viewer to protagonists’ perspectives, making confident, videogame-inspired use of point of view, a technique that justifies survival by almost any means necessary. Despite espousing nostalgia for life before, The Walking Dead delights in the heightened capabilities, clarified objectives, and intense emotions of its post-apocalyptic survivors.

Like Contagion, The Walking Dead’s disaster is a mysterious pandemic, a twist of fate that absolves its characters from responsibility for society’s downfall.  The fictional zombie apocalypse erases the unraveling global economy and impending ecological disasters. Each week’s obstacles insist that survival depends on acquiring territory, taking up arms, and preserving traditional family, and in a newly besieged world in which the lives of women and children are constantly threatened, these actions are freed from ethical interrogation.

Released amidst the political upheaval of 1968, Shame is a disaster film of an entirely different order in which family, the home, and tradition function as agents of horror and violence. The film, which followed Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf  (1968), completed a trilogy of works shot on the island of Fårö in the Baltic Sea. Bergman cast his frequent collaborators Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow in the leadings roles of Eva and Jan Rosenberg, two former concert violinists caught in the midst of an unexplained civil war. The film charts the the violent upending of the politically apathetic young couple’s life by detainment, torture, and the loss of their home, and culminates in their drifting into a corpse-filled sea on a small boat.

Ominously set in the near future of 1971, in an unnamed country, Shame deliberately imagines Fårö as any and all places, allowing its civil war to suggest global cataclysm.  However, by 1968 the film’s attempt to explore the universal effects of warfare through the suffering of Scandinavian musicians seemed naïve and revealed a misunderstanding of the racial politics and brutal legacy of colonialism.

The film was Bergman’s attempt to depict what he described as “the little war,” the domestic havoc wrought by military action.[4] He began work on the screenplay in the spring of 1967, but the film was not released in Sweden until September of 1968, and opened in New York in December of the same year. The months between the beginning of production and the film’s release were politically galvanizing as international audiences bore witness to the Tet Offensive (January 1968), Parisian student revolts (May 1968), Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia (August 1968), and riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (August 1968).

Amidst highly visible imperialist violence and a rising tide of revolutionary thought, the established values of the art cinema apparatus, particularly its Eurocentrism, emphasis on formal achievement, and celebration of artistic quality, seemed bourgeois and politically tepid. Sensing the changing political tide but misunderstanding its nuances, Bergman leapt into the fray and cited a Vietnam newsreel as Shame’s primary inspiration.[5] Recalling the film’s release in 1990 he noted: “I was exorbitantly proud of this film. I also felt that I had a made a contribution to the current social debate (the Vietnam War.)”[6] Though widely accepted as Bergman’s Vietnam film, Shame’s effectiveness and political viability were disputed.

Despite the auteur theory’s waning popularity, both positive and negative reviews of Shame analyzed the film based on its relationship to Bergman’s biography, established style, and oeuvre. Critical responses treated Shame as a metonym for art cinema generally, and used it to assess the ongoing viability of humanism and artistic mastery.  However, the dominant perception of Shame as an illustration of Bergman’s internal turmoil is complicated by the director’s use of improvisation and a large crew. In his effort to respond to contemporary warfare and the accompanying televisual culture, Bergman ventured into unfamiliar narrative and aesthetic territory, negotiated contemporary news media, and allowed an unusual amount of collaboration.

Shame proceeds with surprising uncertainty, it lacks the political stance of Weekend, or the formal confidence of Bergman’s preceding works.  Upon reviewing the film for his 1990 biography, Images: My Life in Film, he sheepishly identified it as problematic and uneven: “The first half, which is about the events of war, is bad. The second half, which is about the effects of war, is good.”[7] Bergman’s qualitative assessment divided the film according to his preexisting expertise, dismissing the political, action-driven first half and favoring the second half’s domestic chamber drama. Bergman continued: “When I made Shame, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint. But my intentions and wishes were greater than my abilities.”[8] Though intended as an admission of the film’s flaws, Bergman’s recollection of Shame as a failure suggests the film’s most striking attribute: its inability to properly resolve or narrativize the brutality it depicts.

Shot entirely in black and white, the film oscillates between Bergman’s signature masterful compositions and shaking, jarring camera movement.  The influence of newsreel photography is clear but intermittent and the couple spend the majority of the film insulated from any media whatsoever.  At the time, the film was Bergman’s most explicit use of consistent verisimilitude and documentary-style realism, and he quoted the contemporary mediascape in both the muffled cacophony of radio broadcasts that play during the film’s prologue and in a propaganda newsreel that appears at the film’s midpoint.

The propaganda film, which was created by the insurgents whose revolt escalates the civil war, features an anguished close-up of Eva’s face paired with politically inflammatory and blatantly unsynchronized voice-over. The sequence, which recalls Bergman’s own propensity for beautiful close-ups, reveals cinematic realism as a visual style comprising black and white photography, mobile camera work, and haunting subject matter.  Neither the radio nor the newsreel grant meaningful insight into the war, suggesting that the techniques of realism falter in capturing reality. Once the insurgency begins, Eva and Jan attempt to escape. Their drive through the burning and ravaged countryside is rapidly edited and includes footage shot inside and outside their vehicle. While death and devastation are clear, the identity of the victims and sources of danger are obscured. Though the sequence relies on news media’s mobile camera and location shooting, it abandons the format’s commitment to exposition. In contrast to the profilmic propaganda film, Bergman leaves his images caption-less and without straightforward moral implications.

In divergence from Bergman’s earlier works, Shame also limits access to the characters’ interiorities. There are no flashbacks or dream sequences to justify Eva and Jan’s actions or grant insight into their emotional trauma. The film is relentlessly claustrophobic, trapping the viewer with the couple as they descend into fear, frustration, and brutality. Initially Jan and Eva’s political apathy, as articulated by the frightened Eva while she is harassed by the insurgent film crew, positions the couple as innocent and exploited bystanders, caught between the whims of warring factions. However, as the war impinges upon their domestic life, this apathy becomes grounds for selfishness. Without a broader sense of ethics the characters have nothing to live or fight for but themselves.

In concert with Mick Broderick’s analysis of disaster cinema, the war in Shame reinstates patriarchal order and returns the couple to a life of “agrarian toil.” However, instead of providing clarity or comfort, the new order strips Jan of his compassion and Eva of her autonomy.  Eva begins the film brash, direct, and fed-up with her husband’s “escapism;” she prepares their breakfast, loads the car, and negotiates their business dealings.  Jan, on the other hand, is easily distracted and plagued by nightmares and a toothache.  However, once the war escalates, Eva is subordinated to both Jan and Jacobi, a local official who starts routinely visiting them.

The couple becomes trapped in their home, dependent on successfully cultivating their garden and on regular gifts from Jacobi.  The official clearly desires Eva sexually, and after joining the couple for a glass of wine, kisses her in front of Jan.  Jacobi then offers Eva his life-savings in exchange for sex, which she accepts. Though Jacobi’s request is laden with emotional vulnerability, it is also an act of coercion, a manipulation of his wartime empowerment. The last time the film favors Jan’s perspective over Eva’s is the sequence in which he wakes from his drunken stupor to discover the affair. He retaliates by stealing the money and hiding it from invading rebels, an act that precipitates Jacobi’s murder and the rebels burning down his home.

After Jacobi’s death, the couple is isolated and forced to live off the land in the greenhouse next to their charred home. It is a return to nature, sustenance living, and each other.  Though Eva vocally objects to Jan’s actions, he silences her with a series of brutal slaps and she remains by his side. The rest of the film clings to Eva’s point of view as her character devolves into passivity. The couples’ transformation culminates in Jan murdering a teenage soldier despite Eva’s meek protests. As Jan and the youth wander off-screen, Eva sits in extreme close-up almost entirely still. When she finally breaks into motion and runs after her husband it is too late, the boy is dead, and Jan has stolen his boots. In retaliation, Eva threatens to stay behind while her husband escapes on a boat and he brusquely replies that she should.

Shocked by his indifference, Eva acquiesces and suggests they pack food.  Though descriptions of the film have emphasized Eva’s inaction, the tight close-ups of Liv Ullman’s shining eyes and knitted brow suggest a deeply conflicted character that repeatedly decides to concede. She stays with Jan, and is complicit in murder because other options seem distant and impractical. The characters accede to, and perpetuate, tradition without questioning its basis, and in doing so lose their ethical footing. The film ends with them lying together, drifting to sea, likely headed to their deaths as Eva describes a half-forgotten nightmare in which her fantasy of motherhood was interrupted by firebombing.  The scene recalls the beginning of the film, in which Jan describes a dream of them playing the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. By film’s end, it is clear that neither Jan nor Eva’s dreams will come to pass, both because of their impending deaths, and because their fantasies of domestic happiness have been irreparably fractured.  

The circularity between the film’s beginning and end refuses sentimentality or nostalgia. Instead of encouraging a retreat into the past, Shame acknowledges how the logic underlying society’s successes also precipitates its failures. Though disconnected from 1960s radicalism, Shame—insisting on personal agency and resisting pastoral fantasy—is the disaster film we need now.

Alison Kozberg
is a writer, researcher, arts administrator, and doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on American taste culture, experimental film, and the history of Southern California.



[1] Almond, Steve. “The Apocalypse Market is Booming.” The New York Times Magazine. 27 Sept. 2013.

[2] Broderick, Mick. “Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster.“ Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 20 No. 3 (Nov. 1993): 362-382.

[3] Overby, Erin. “The Walking Dead Returns.” The New Yorker. 14 Oct. 2012.

[4] Bergman, Ingmar. Images: My Life in Film. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990, 2011: 299.

[5] Hedling, Erik. “Shame: Ingmar Bergman’s Vietnam War.” Nordicom Review 29 (2008):247

[6] Bergman. Op cit. 300.

[7] Ibid. 299.

[8] Ibid. 300.