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'Shame': The New Bergman

In 'The Seventh Seal,' Death asked the knight, "Don't you ever stop asking questions?" and the Knight replied, "No, I'll never stop." In 'Shame' the Mayor releases Jan and his wife: "You will not be detained for further questioning."

By David W. Boorstin

AT LAST Ingmar Bergman has stopped posing questions and begun taking them for granted. Shame is probably his greatest film--and it is the first to aim exclusively below the neck. We had expected "A Film from Ingmar Bergman" on the subject of war to be filled with long dialogues, endless questioning; in our mind's eye we can see a low-key closeup of Liv Ullman or Max von Sydow asking, "Why is this happening to us? Why doesn't it make any sense?" But this is precisely what Bergman avoids. For the first time we can walk out of a film of his with our intellect numb, our body vibrating.

Perosona and Hour of The Wolf, his two previous films, showed the full-blown nightmare of the mind. The intellect is most horrible of all terrors, because there is no escape from it. Both these films showed people's brains driving them out of their minds. Every detail of time and space was enlarged: in Hour of the Wolf Max von Sydow measures out one minute in the dark and shows us how unbearably long it can be; in Persona Bergman constantly shows us detail of the two women's faces, so that when their personalities fuse we have already noticed an increasing physical likeness.

BUT Shame inverts this perspective Instead of enlarging detail, Bergman shrinks it. He bypasses our minds by having little that is concrete in the film--the whole thing takes on a dreamish look, and you can only stop to "think out" a dream after you've awakened from it. The few "key" lines in the film are all contained in descriptions of dreams: "At times everything is like a dream. But it's not my dream, it's somebody else's--what when that person wakes up and is ashamed?"

May be the whole film is a dream. Bergman has certainly gone to lengths to make it subtly unreal, frequently splitting sound and image, for example. The invaders film an interview with Eva, then dub in false dialogue for propaganda purposes. Bells, ringing far away, seem to be trying to wake everyone up. But if Shame is a dream, it's still far from the nightmare of Hour of the Wolf, for there we watched a man at war with himself; here it's men at war with each other. And while the end of Hour left us with nothing but cold fear, Bergman at least chooses a hopeful literary device for his final symbol in Shame, when Eva describes her dream: "I was watching a wall with a rose--then an airplane came and set fire to the rose. But it wasn't awful because it was so beautiful." According to medieval legend, the first roses appeared miraculously at Bethlehem, when a "fayre Mayden" falsely accused of witchcraft was about to be burnt; the burning brands changed to roses and she was saved. If Bergman consciously used such a literary device to end his film, we must conclude he finds some hope in the middle of hell. The burning rose is not just destruction but purgation--sacrifice for a purpose. Compare this with The Seventh Seal or Hour of the Wolf, where death has no hope, no secrets, only--nothing.

SO, BERGMAN finds less horror in men destroying men than in a man destroying himself. Maybe he feels war, in its horror, teaches something to those who are left--while a man's war with his own brain can never leave any survivors.

At any rate, he certainly doesn't aim Shame at our minds, but instead succeeds in an overall effect. Making a non-intellectual film he has at last fused his talents as writer and director, and simultaneously bridged the space between his screen and his audience. Still, many of the devices he uses are vintage Bergman. Gaunt Max von Sydow, for example, plays the archteypal Bergman male--weak and childish, incapable of even killing a hen for supper, leaning on Liv Ullman, his strong loving wife (much like Gunnar Bjornstrand and Eva Dahlbeck in a happier film, Smiles of a Summer Night). Here, too, the estranged couple is at the end reunited. But even these familiar touches are now used in a new way. The dialogue more than ever belongs to the characters, not to Bergman. Bergman has been released from the grip of his own questioning mind, and so he has released his characters, and so they release us. Neither he nor they are forced through tortuous mind-plucking, cerebral contortions. We should only be so lucky. Eat a pizza after seeing Shame, or walk around, or get mugged, go to the airport and watch planes take off. But don't come right home to Cambridge. You'll only be jumping back into the same mindswamp Ingmar Bergman just helped you escape.

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