The middle segment of Ingmar Bergman’s late ’60s trilogy of films set on the island of Fårö, Shame is less enigmatic than Hour of the Wolf and more harrowing than The Passion of Anna. It’s impossible to think that Bergman wasn’t in some way affected by the worldwide debate over American involvement in Vietnam when he wrote the script for Shame, though its politics are neutral. Bergman is much more interested in exploring the inability of civilians to get out of the way of a war and what the consequences are when it does touch them. Precisely because Jan and Eva Rosenberg take no sides in the civil conflict they are trying to avoid, their basic reaction to danger is one of pure survival… When Eva tries to recall a remark that would comfort her, her memory fails her; it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the career of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.
— Tom Wiener, AllRovi
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, Ingmar Bergman made this angry and bleak film that was against all war, and argued that it didn’t matter which side you were on. In 1966, in his Persona, he had used the famous televised footage of a Vietnamese monk burning himself alive to shock an actress into ceasing all forms of speech. In the two years between, what had changed, so that he no longer took sides?
It is a question without an answer in Shame, which does not deliver a message in any formal way, but simply offers people and their lives and leaves us to conclude what we choose. Both films star Liv Ullmann, his actress in nine films starting with Persona. Her co-star is Max von Sydow, who had worked with Bergman since The Seventh Seal (1957). Ullmann and Bergman play a tortured couple, as they also do in Hour of the Wolf and The Passion of Anna. In a strange sense, all three films are about the same couple; only their narrative changes…
All of this (I have left out many details) paints a portrait of a couple torn from their secure lives and forced into a horrifying new world of despair, testing them both to discover who they really are what they really feel. The overwhelming concluding passages, interrupted by shots of the sky, are among the most desolate Bergman ever filmed.
Shame was named best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, but is not much talked about 40 years later–certainly not in comparison with Persona. It might have made a greater impact if he’d made it specifically about Vietnam, but I believe he was unhappy that Persona had been decoded by critics as being against that war, all because of one image; it was about, and against, a great deal more. In this film you can see him shifting away from message and toward the close regard of human behavior and personality (as in his “Silence of God” trilogy). That did not turn him into a realist or a conventional storyteller, but it freed him from ideology.
Ideology is one of the enemies in Shame. Jan and Eva are punished because they are suspected of being “sympathizers,” but the film lacks any information about where it takes place, who the two sides are, and what they stand for. To a civilian caught in the middle, there is no way out. Jan and Eva are not sympathizers for the other side, but neither are they patriots for this side. In a sense, the film could be about the ordinary non-combatant people of Iraq — or, pick your war.
— Roger Ebert
In other words, we are talking about a poorly constructed manuscript. The first half of the film is really nothing more than an endlessly drawn-out prologue that ought to have been over and done within ten minutes. What happens later could have been built upon, fleshed out, and developed as much as was needed. I didn’t ever see that. I didn’t see it when I wrote the screenplay; I didn’t see it when I shot the film; I didn’t see it when I edited it. During that time I lived with the idea that Shame was self-evident and emotionally logical all the way through.
— Ingmar Berman, Images: My Life in Film (p. 301)
I believe Bergman has expressed a relative lack of enthusiasm, shall we say, for this part. He’s not too pleased the way it works its way out. But I, for one, would tend to disagree. I think it sets up a contrast that makes the other two parts — whatever’s left in the film — that much more powerful and terrible.
— Marc Gervais, commentary track
* The Search for Humanity featurette (18:34)
* Interview with Liv Ullmann (3:48)
* Commentary by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais