The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

A post about me, Ingmar Bergman and Shame

with 9 comments

What’s the first thing you come to think of if I say “Swedish film”?

Back in the 60s it might have been a word that isn’t safe for work. I won’t print it out here though, because it will end up in web searches by people who are looking for something that we don’t offer at this café. There’s no need to trick them over using that word. But I think you know what I’m getting at. And it begins with a p or an s.

Nowadays I’m not sure what is top on mind. Maybe it’s some actor who has had a bit of success abroad, such as Noomi Rapace or the Skarsgård family.

But in film buff circles I’m also pretty sure that Ingmar Bergman would appear pretty high up on the list.

As I’ve said before I always feel a little bit embarrassed when I see some blogging colleagues going crazy about him.

I’ve only watched a small chunk of his collected work and to be honest I’ve only felt that I “got” or “loved” a few of them.

Obviously there are a few Bergman movies which I love and plug when I can, movies such as Fanny & Alexander and the TV series Scenes from a Marriage. The Seventh Seal is pretty cool too. I never tire of the chess game with the devil.

But there are many, many of his movies that I haven’t watched at all, or I watched them way too early in my life, at a point when I couldn’t appreciate them at all.

My childhood image of Bergman
Growing up in the 70s and early 80s I have vague recollections of Bergman.

There was one occasion when he won me over. It was when he made a set-up of The Magic Flute by Mozart in 1975. Everyone watched it. Everyone. Our teacher in second class even had us learn Papageno’s song by heart. I wonder if Bergman ever was as beloved as he was as an opera director.

But most of the time Bergman was just that grumpy guy in a beret who made more headlines in the newspapers for being in fight with the tax administration than he did for his strange movies. And finally he got so pissed off that he moved abroad, where they seemed to have taken a liking in him.

It happened that they showed Bergman movies on TV.  I remember catching glimpses of them. Sometimes they were scary, like the dream scene in Wild Strawberries, showing watches without pointers. But mostly they were very dull and very silent. People barely talked at all. And when they did, they went into long arguments about something beyond my comprehension. I had no idea of what the grown-ups saw in those movies, as little as I could understand how anyone could like beer, olives or coffee.

Quick jump forward to 2012. This is the year when I’ll turn 45 and I’ve done my homework. I’ve learned to drink beer. I love olives (at least the black kalamata ones; I’m still skeptic to green olives stuffed with pepper). And I don’t dare to think about how much coffee I drink every day, but I’m pretty sure it’s at an unhealthy level.

So, at this age, can I appreciate Bergman as much as the other cinephiles? To be honest I don’t know yet. But I’m going to find out soon hopefully. It turned out that we actually have a number of his films at home, films that it’s about time that I watched.

von Sydow and Ullmann
First out was Shame from 1968, a black and white movie starring two of my favorite actors, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, as a couple struggling with their relationship as well as for survival during a fictive civil war on the Swedish island Gotland.

Sadly enough I have to admit that I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to.

On the bright side is the cinematography by Sven Nyqvist. Sweden has stayed out of war for hundreds of years and the idea of a civil war on Gotland is pretty ridiculous. Yet he manages to make it seem believable. I also enjoyed seeing so many great Swedish actors, but at a younger age.

But that’s the positives. On the whole, I found it as disengaging and strange as I remember Bergman from my childhood. I was especially puzzled over the final act which included some dreamy sequences on a boat. Toss in a dream into a movie and I tune out, unless we’re speaking of Inception, where the dream sequences make sense.

Bergman’s view
Interestingly enough I found that Bergman didn’t like this movie all that much either, but from a different point of view than mine. Particularly disliked half of the film, a part that I don’t have any bigger problem with.  I thought it was the ending that was problematic.

Here’s an excerpt from one of his autobiographies, Images: My life in film:

“”To make a war film is to depict violence committed toward both groups and individuals. In American film, the depiction of violence has a long tradition. In Japan, it has developed into a masterful titual, matchlessly choreographed. When I made Shame, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint. I did not understand that a modern portrayer of war needs a totally different fortitude and professional precision than what I could provide.

Once the outer violence stops and the inner violence begins, Shame becomes a good film. When society can no longer function, the main characters lose their frame of reference. Their social relations cease. The people crumble. The weak man becomes ruthless. The woman, who had been the stronger, falls apart. Everything slips away into a dream play that ends on board refugee boat. Everything is shown in pictures, as in a nightmare. In a nightmare, I felt at home. In the reality of war, I was lost.

In other words, we are talking about 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”

I hear what he’s saying, but it doesn’t help me appreciate Shame more. I just don’t love it.  If I was to introduce someone to Bergman, this would not be what I’d suggest them to watch first. Perhaps I’m still not old enough.

Shame (Skammen, Ingmar Bergman, SWE, 1968) My rating: 3/5

Written by Jessica

May 24, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in Skammen

9 Responses

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  1. Skammen (Shame), honestly, is not one of my favourite Bergman movies either. I have a few problems with it, similar to the ones you have. The 60s is one of his most engaging decades, but there are a few flops. I prefer to think of it as for every four films Bergman made, one was bad or terrible. I didn’t think Skammen was bad, but it’s certainly not one I love. Nice review though, and I’m interested to hear what you see next.

    Tyler

    May 24, 2012 at 5:34 am

  2. Well, if you don’t like something at a specific age chances are you won’t be liking it later either (at least that’s the case for me). As for Bergman, I only recently saw movies from him for the first time, these were Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. Although they were good movies they didn’t have me running to the shop to buy more of his movies.

    Nostra

    May 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    • In the case of Bergman I really think most people need to be at least 15 to get anything out of it. And something like Scenes from a Marriage will speak to you way stronger if you’ve been in a long-term relationship.

      I think you should at least try that one. It’s really very, very different to The Seventh Seal, way more down-to-Earth, connecting to people’s lives of today.

      Jessica

      May 24, 2012 at 9:43 pm

  3. Great post. Takes courage to admit, let alone write about, not especially adoring someone who’s considered a genius or an icon.

    fernandorafael

    May 27, 2012 at 4:13 am

    • Thanks. I really adore some of his films, but I won’t automatically consider ever movie he has made a masterpiece just because it’s got his label. One thing is certain though: I need to watch more Bergman.

      Jessica

      May 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm

  4. I haven’t seen a high percentage of Bergman’s movies, too. Perhaps I am put off by preconceptions about sadness and emptiness. I have to give him another chance. One movie I loved was his version of The Magic Flute. It’s worth looking for.

    Joe Thompson

    May 31, 2012 at 6:34 am

    • I’d say there’s sadness in them, but I’m not sure about the emptiness. If you haven’t seen Scenes from a Marriage, I think it’s an accessable one.

      Jessica

      May 31, 2012 at 7:15 am


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