Civil war continues. Jan and Eva Rosenberg, both musicians (read: apolitical artists), have retreated to an island, where they farm. They are an alternately warm, good-natured and combative couple. Eva (Liv Ullmann, giving her best-ever performance—best actress, Guldbagge Award, National Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review) lightly, charmingly tells Jan over dinner outdoors, “I don’t think you know what love is.” Women often think this about their men, but we figure that Eva in this instance is right.
Jan (Max von Sydow, playing this unpleasant character as well as possible) is a pain; he gets a comical case of cramps while kissing his wife. After Eva has sex with her former lover, village mayor Colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand, giving the best performance), cowardly Jan is responsible for Jacobi’s brave death, giving Eva grief riddled with guilt. Indeed, Jan retreats into callousness, beating Eva and killing a young injured soldier, a frightened deserter hiding out. I am not sure that war’s capacity to reveal Jan’s true nature comports with writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s antiwar intent.
Skammen has a good deal to commend it. It is a Swede’s fine assault on neutrality. (“Do you even care what political system you live under?” a soldier demands of Eva.) It is a committed antiwar film at the time of the Vietnam War. It is perhaps the most brilliant piece of black-and-white cinematography in Sven Nykvist’s career: soft and diffuse, as though the bombings and artillery fire were cumulatively causing matter to disintegrate before our eyes. Indeed, human figures, when they are not shadowlike, seem to be disappearing into the gray. No wonder the prizes for Bergman, the film, Nykvist.
But, for me, crabby marital melodrama wobbles the whole. Skammen certainly looks like a masterpiece; but is it?
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