War's Degradation of the Human in Bergman's 'Shame'

Liv Ullman as Eva Rosenberg and Max von Sydow as Jan Rosenberg in Shame (1968) (Courtesy of The Criterion Collection)

Ingmar Bergman's Shame is one of his few films so blatantly concerned with the impositions of the external world,as opposed to the internal, subjective aspects of life.

Ingmar Bergman


5 Feb 2019


We live in a world of other people. Even when we endeavor to be utterly alone, they are there. Our mental landscape is populated with others; we think and feel with and against them, they shape our perceptions in countless ways. Perhaps most importantly, and certainly most troublingly, they force us to consider how it is that we are perceived; that is, they make us face up to the fact that we stand among the perceptibles of the world and they lead us to be concerned with the manner in which we are seen and understood. Because we make assessments, because we make judgments, in order to navigate our way through the world, we realize that we too are judged, we are seen, we are assessed. When we feel that we fail to live up to the judgments of others, whether actual judgments or simply judgments we imagine others might make of us, we feel shame.

Shame is often compared to and contrasted with guilt. Both are self-conscious emotions that evaluate our sense of self in relation to the (actual or assumed) presence of others; in other words, both guilt and shame are predicated on the fact that we are inherently social. We feel guilt and shame because we are aware of social norms or perhaps even norms that we assume universally govern what it means to be human. What distinguishes shame from guilt, according to the majority of writers concerned with the topic, is that guilt places the emphasis on the act (I did this bad thing) whereas shame places emphasis on the actor (I am the kind of person who does this bad thing). Hence, for many authorities, guilt is a progressive emotion in that it fosters self-betterment whereas shame is regressive in that it shuts down reparative action by causing the person experiencing shame to close herself off from social engagement. Shame has a tendency to perpetuate itself recursively (the "shame spiral") and leads to seclusion, withdrawal, and the dissipation of an integrated and efficacious sense of self.

Of course, shame need not be entirely regressive. We gain some sense of its progressive possibilities when we consider the opposite of shame: shamelessness. To be shameless is to be egregiously willing to disregard social norms and the legitimate expectations and feelings of others. The shameless person disavows her social nature and treats others as mere objects of utility in furthering her own designs. Therefore, we might argue that, while we want to avoid the debilitating effects of utter shame, we also want to prevent ourselves from holding the bloated sense of self that would cause us to shamelessly transgress upon the other humans (and perhaps other aspects of nature, as well) that constitute our world. If we think of a continuum running from utter shame to utter shamelessness, we would ideally find ourselves occupying some kind of Aristotelian mean—close enough to shame to be mindful of how we behave in our social world but far enough away from it to prevent ourselves from falling into despondency.

One of the most peculiar aspects of shame is that we can feel it on behalf of others who are not directly experiencing it themselves. When someone behaves in a manner that we deem unfitting of a human, when someone behaves inhumanely, we feel shame in their place. This is a common occurrence when facing the depravity of war. Many witnesses to the atrocities of war feel shame even when the perpetrators of those atrocities feel none. Now, remember that shame is an emotion that is directed inwardly toward the self. If we define ourselves, in part, by our sociality (insofar as we are profoundly social animals), then shame is the recognition that we somehow fail to live up to our obligation to others. To feel shame is to realize that there is something not quite human that lingers in us, that betrays and belies our social nature. To feel shame on behalf of a villain who does not experience it directly is to recognize that there is something inherently inhuman that resides at the core of our humanity. To feel shame is to understand ourselves as a paradox (as Giorgio Agamben claims in Remnants of Auschwitz, 1998). We are, according to Aristotle, rational animals and yet we find that our rationality and our animality are fundamentally at odds. Hence, Emmanuel Levinas, in his study On Escape (1935), suggests that shame isn't a passing emotion among others but rather an ontological condition of being human.

Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Sometimes considered the centerpiece of an unofficial trilogy on the theme of violence, Ingmar Bergman's Shame (1968) is one of the very few films by the director to be so blatantly concerned with the external world as opposed to the internal, subjective aspects of life—particularly the subjective emotional states of the artist or his/her surrogates as in Persona (1966) or Hour of the Wolf (1968). Shame also features artists as its protagonists—the married orchestral violinists Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan Rosenberg (Max von Sydow), in this case—but they are artists alienated from their calling, forced into relative seclusion on a farm on a rural island in a futile attempt to escape a longstanding and devastating civil war raging through their unnamed country. Eva and Jan have no political affiliation and express no partisan sentiments. Indeed, the film eschews any real discussion of the political views of the opposing sides; the authoritative figures from both sides are equally uncaring, manipulative, abusive, and callous—creating the impression that neither side offers anything more than oppression, hardship, and veritable servitude.

War threatens to reduce the human being (the rational animal) to mere animality or worse. War erodes our sense of autonomy and our pursuit of needs (spiritual, philosophical, artistic) that reach beyond subsistence and the preservation of our bodies. Jan and Eva scratch out a living on a small and not particularly productive farm. They trade with neighbors for necessities (such as fish) and the rare luxury (such as the bottle of wine they purchase from a local merchant who was just preparing to be mobilized, conscripted into a war he doesn't understand or support). Mostly, Eva and Jan try to stay out of the way. War tends to treat human bodies as fodder to continue the perpetuation of war or as obstacles to its progress. Jan and Eva, in their attempts to sidestep the demands of war, easily fall prey to its depredations.

Early in the film, invading troopers parachute into the area surrounding the Rosenberg farm. The soldiers grab Eva and interview her on film for a piece of cinematic propaganda. Eva, confused and disheveled, admits that she understands little about the politics behind the civil war; she insists she is not indifferent but also not politically aware. Later, the forces in charge of the island roughly interrogate the Rosenbergs. Eva is shown a copy of the film. Her voice has been overdubbed and she is made to say that she welcomes the invading troops as liberators. But these soldiers and authorities are no more understanding than the invading force. The logic of war, in Bergman's Shame, demands the silencing not of the voices of rebellion (indeed, those voices are somewhat necessary in order to keep the war going, in order to feed the war machine) but rather the voices of reasonable non-participation. The greatest sin within this civil war is to fail to be committed to the war.

Gunnar Björnstrand as Jacobi in Shame (IMDB)

The Rosenbergs have a connection to the mayor of their nearby town, Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand), and it is partly through his efforts that they are spared further attack from the authorities. Jacobi soon exploits his role of protector in order to make sexual demands upon Eva, who resigns herself to his attentions as yet another intrusion of war into her life. Jan, however, undergoes the starker transformation. Emotionally wrought and ill-equipped for survival in the first half of the film, he becomes gradually hardened by his circumstances. He eventually becomes accustomed to death, participating (whether wittingly or not is up to interpretation) in the assassination of Jacobi and later callously killing a young soldier who had fled the war and found refuge in their greenhouse. His murderous act has a kind of depraved logic to it: one can never be certain if the young man seeking solace at the moment might not turn out to be a threat to one's life soon after. And yet this is precisely the kind of logic that the Jan of the first half of the film would have found abhorrent and incoherent.

As Jan pulls on the boots he has just taken from the young soldier he shot, he tells Eva that the soldier mentioned a boat that was leaving the next day to take people off the island (doubtless this information was given by the soldier in an effort to bribe Jan into sparing his life). Eva, shocked by Jan's increasing willingness to behave inhumanely, cries out that she will refuse to go. "Better that way," Jan responds coldly. And Eva capitulates. She may not like the Jan she sees before her, she may not even recognize him, but he is far more capable of effecting their escape than either she or the earlier Jan would be. War reduces the human impulse to one of mere survival—survival for no other purpose than itself; all else is sacrificed on the altar of mere continuation. In the extremity of war, it isn't art that we strive to protect, it isn't the ideals of morality, nor the heights of cultural refinement; rather, war inspires a bitter pragmatism that seeks to vouchsafe the endurance of our corporeality. If much of our lives are spent striving to sublimate our bodies, to cultivate the arts of the mind, or to convince the body to reach beyond its mere functioning, war insists that they only thing necessary is that our blood continues to flow through our veins, our stomachs continue to digest food, our bowels continue to produce excrement.

This is the reduction of war explored in Shame and it is the characteristic of war productive of shame. War demonstrates in an all-too-vivid manner that the substrate of our existence, the material thing upon which the rest of our life is constructed, is this body—in all of its frailties, in all of its gross effusions and emissions, in all of its clumsiness. Shame is often associated directly with the body—the disproportionate, displeasing image of the body as it is uncharitably perceived. Adam and Eve are the quintessential (western) symbol of shame. They fold in on themselves, cowering, hiding their nudity from the eyes of a perfection (God) they now realize they can never attain. The nudity of which they are now aware is not merely physical—it is existential. Shame articulates the chasm that lies between our image of what we ought to be (made in the image of God, the image of perfection) and what we actually, at root, really are (fleshy bags of pus, urine, and excrement). And war—by reducing the human to the needy, frail, exposed body that underwrites any pretensions toward being a rational animal—invites us to see shame not as a passing emotion but rather a central characteristic of what it means to be human without ever being able to be fully human.

(Courtesy of The Criterion Collection)

This is the point of equivocation we occupy. On the one hand, we are clearly human in the sense of being homo sapiens. This manner of using the term "human" merely designates what kind of animal we are. It is simply a biological category. On the other hand, we long to consider ourselves as deeply human in an evaluative sense. When someone behaves "humanely", we believe that they enact in concrete action the ideal of being human. "Human", in this sense, is a moral category; it represents what we strive to attain (moral perfection) without being able to do so. War is a fulgurous reminder of how far the blunt fact that we are human is removed from our ability or willingness to behave humanely.

Furthermore, by treating bodies as mere fodder—the material of war and the detritus it leaves behind in the form of corpses—war reduces the other to the status of the obstacle. If I approach you as someone who cannot be reduced to my understanding of you, if I treat you not just as a Kantian end-in-itself (meaning, in part, that I have no claim upon you, no right to intrude upon your autonomy) but moreover in the Levinasian sense of obligation (meaning that you have a claim upon me, in that I have an implicit existential obligation to look after you, to care for you), then dealing humanely with you means to be open to the constant presence of change, to be flexible, to responsibly respond to what you present to me without the reduction to the same that would make anything you are simply another iteration of what I recognize in myself. War negates that openness. War creates a closed totality in which the two sides of the conflict make up a stultifying and inescapable whole. War whispers in our ear that we cannot escape our brute corporeality, we can't walk away from the constraints of base animality, no matter how culturally advanced, no matter how wise we believe ourselves to have become.

The final portions of Shame are nearly bereft of dialogue. Jan and Eva lugubriously find their way to the boat. As the boat navigates the water, as it distances itself from the island shore, Jan and other occupants are forced to use the oars to push their way through the bogs of floating corpses that block their path. These human bodies are now simply obstacles; they are pushed aside like any other form of refuse—without sympathy, without concern. One pays little heed to the bits of material detritus that blocks one's way; such material is cast aside. The corpses, however, are a stark reminder that there is little ultimate difference between their position as obstacles and the position of the living bodies in the boat. Living or dead, bodies are just bodies, occupying space, feeding the war and then feeding the earth, standing always in someone's way rather than claiming someone's love. Moreover, the corpses call into question the very possibility of escape. Indeed, Jan and Eva, no matter how far away from the island they manage to get, will never escape the war. They wear the scars of war, have imbibed its lessons, have seen themselves for what they are—what they cannot help but be in the context of man's inhumanity to man. This is the cost of shame that has revealed too much: we cannot escape the inhumanity that resides at our core.

* * *

Criterion Collection presents a blu-ray edition of Shame featuring a new digital restoration of the film and several extras including interviews with Bergman from the time of the film, a recent interview with Liv Ullmann, and a 1968 documentary on Bergman made while the director was working on this film.

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