The Silence

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November 22, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

By 1963 Ingmar Bergman had become one of the biggest names in international cinema. Perhaps more so than any other European arthouse director of the time his films saw major penetration of the American market and had the power to become international sensations. If prior to this it was the specific quality and purity of his vision that brought people to the theatre then, with The Silence, he inadvertently managed to bait the hook with that holy grail of marketing, controversy. Granted Bergman’s films had generated problems before1, but the scale of the reaction to The Silence was unprecedented and, in light of later events, it proved a major breakthrough in opening up cinema and cinema audiences to more explicit sexual elements2.

As a result of all this controversy the film still boasts the biggest theatrical audience of any of the director’s films which is rendered all the more ironic as it may be his most abstract since early experiments such as 1949’s Fängelse (aka Prison). Within Bergman’s canon the film closes off an informal trilogy exploring the question of “Faith” and of “God’s Silence.” If the first two films of that trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, teased out and toyed with the particulars of the question then it is with this film that we are finally plunged into a world that truly is bereft of God and His stain.

We follow two sisters, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Ester (Ingrid Thulin), and Anna’s young son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), as they ride a train into the fictional city-state of Timoka, a place seemingly on the threshold of war. The trio have apparently been traveling for some time and are working their way back to their native Sweden. For now they will spend their days in a hotel within the city and it is here that the bulk of events, as opposed to narrative, unfold. They seem to be the only guests at the large and often cavernous hotel other than a troupe of dwarves who put on circus shows at nearby locales. The only other resident is an elderly waiter who, like the dwarves, shares no spoken language with the Swedish protagonists. Once in place Ester, who is ill, drinks and smokes while pursuing her job as a literary translator whilst Anna visits the nearby cafés and taverns in search of sexual fulfillment. Johan is left to explore the corridors of the hotel, an often ominous setting for a child that could easily have served as inspiration for Kubrick’s visuals in The Shining. As the moods of his two guardians temper the atmosphere of the hotel, he remains detached but always looking in at this unknowable adult world which surrounds him.

Delving into The Silence it’s clear to see that we’re working here with broad abstraction rather than developed characters. The two sisters—presaging the dichotomous relationship explored in Persona, both structurally within the script and formally in Bergman and Nykvist’s visual compositions—clearly represent two parts of a whole. Anna is earthy and sexual whilst Ester is cerebral and neurotic. Anna is body and Ester is mind. Their relationship is fraught with difficulties, the two constantly at odds as Ester tries to maintain control and superiority but is unable to track and monitor Anna’s more basic impulses. Implications elsewhere, tender strokes through hair and the close confines of the room suggest the potential of a homoerotic element to their pairing, a unification of warring factions. Johan stands between them, an unblemished presence who seems capable of interacting with the world without heaping damage upon himself. He visits the dwarves and plays games with them, shares some telling moments with the waiter and generally explores all he can. In this dark world of Bergman’s creation only the gangling, pale boy seems to harbour hope. Around him the world is a mixture of deep shadow and overpowering white light, the former cleaving to Anna while the latter oppressively drowns Ester.

Although we are given no story to this place of Timoka we can tell—tanks whizzing past Johan’s gaze as the train nears its destination, a malnourished horse pulling an overloaded cart down the street and the later arrival of a tank into the city square—that something is not right here. Tensions are high and the entire place seems poised on an uneasy quiet, ready to crumble at any moment. The tensions here were of course mirrored in the ongoing Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis still fresh in the minds of cinema-goers around the world. The Silence is not predicated on reality however and so it is these abstracts that remind us of the burden of threat on each and every person. The ongoing war is not openly referenced as it is by von Sydow’s character in Winter Light.

The language barrier shapes all discourse in the film. In this world there is an unavoidable silence between the protagonists and all those around them. Words have little power and they are a scarcity throughout3. Gesture and props might allow them some function in communicating with the locals but no true connection can be forged, not even as Anna finds some manner of sexual solace with a waiter (Birger Malmsten4) she meets nearby. The sex, though fevered and shrouded in erotic shadow, is nonetheless anonymous and ungratifying. Trying to appease her own sexual appetite, Ester inquires for details, seemingly incapable of satisfying herself. The film gives ample detail of this, Anna’s almost feral sexual trysts contrasting with Ester’s own seemingly torturous attempts at masturbation. Elsewhere, as Anna prowls the city, Ester witnesses debauchery—transfixed until she rushes away in some mixture of fear and disgust—behind Timoka’s ostensibly quiet exterior as a couple have energetic sex on a theatre seat just a few feet from where she sits.

Nonetheless, if language is an ongoing problem within the film, the film’s conclusion gives us some hope. Having gleaned a few words from the natives, Ester transposes them onto a sheet entitled “To Johan – words in a foreign language” which the young boy reads as he and his mother Anna ride the train away from Timoka. Ester languishes behind, the inference being that she has died, succumbed to her diseases. The struggle may have been bitter but Johann now has more control, more power in breaking through the silence that surrounds him. It may not be an answer but it represents an advancement.

From a formal perspective The Silence continues along the impressive lines Bergman and Nykvist began to follow upon their first full pairing5 in The Virgin Spring. Toying with strong contrasts of light and shadow, Nykvist lent a depth and potency to Bergman’s visuals that his prior director of photography, Gunnar Fischer (wonderfully talented in his own right), could not. Also, as Peter Cowie notes in a brief video segment included with Criterion’s DVD release of this film in the U.S., the camera here is more mobile and subjective than in any earlier film in Bergman’s oeuvre. This becomes particularly noticeable in sequences involving young Johann which often see the camera hang down from the ceiling or conversely peer almost dizzyingly upwards.

In further enhancing the film’s oppressive aesthetic there is virtually no music to accompany the visuals. The only occurrence of a tune is a brief excerpt of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ in a single scene and it presents one of the film’s more hopeful strands as Ester and the waiter share a moment of mutual recognition. Beyond that snippet we are left with silence, broken only by the occasional ticking of a clock. These often startling production elements highlight Bergman’s continuing experimental nature; many of his efforts here tying in with larger movements in European cinema of the time. The austere, almost impenetrable surrounds, the lush visual aesthetic and the manipulation of cinema language—music and character—tie the film to the burgeoning modernist (or arguably post-modernist) movement forged with Alain Resnais’ masterful Hiroshima mon amour and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura.

If the film bears room for criticism it is perhaps that its construction is too obvious and too entrenched in extremes. Gone are the more emotive and transparently humane dialogues of Through a Glass Darkly and, particularly, Winter Light. Necessarily, in furnishing his newfound world, Bergman had to pare down many of the more traditional aspects of his métier. The response then is most surely left to the individual. Although some may find the film overwhelmingly cold, austere and challenging there’s no denying its beauty and craft. The sumptuousness of the shadows and carefully monitored gradations of shade speak to a different kind of elegance, one founded primarily in the aesthetic, the visceral rather than in the spoken word or in narrative construction.

Although his career up until this point yielded various formal experiments, The Silence represents a huge leap into new terrain. If it is less palpably humane than his previous work it is only because Bergman, and a few other directors around him, were beginning to find new aesthetic approaches for capturing the complexity of the human beast. So then it is up to the viewer to invest himself in the world. More so than anything made earlier in his career, The Silence represents a genuinely sensual cinema. It paved the way for more complete and complex works, primarily Persona, but also holds a power of its own. In the end the film is vital, as it seems to have finally afforded Bergman the vehicle by which to escape his strict, Lutheran upbringing. He would, of course, dabble in these themes and concerns again but this film sits as a transformational catalyst within the great Swedish director’s work. As The Seventh Seal brought shape, form and an audience to his debate, The Silence brings some kind of closure to that major period.

1 The Virgin Spring was banned in Fort Worth, Texas for its rape scene—-a ban that was upheld by the US Supreme Court—whilst elsewhere some of his earlier works, such as Hamstad (aka Port of Call) caused some consternation in its native Sweden for its rather forthright depiction of issues such as abortion and depression.

2 For the U.S. at least the massive breakthrough came just a few years later with the landmark obscenity trial surrounding another Swedish film, Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow).

3 It’s a little comical to note that this write-up for the film, including these footnotes, amounts to about one hundred more words than the entire published script for the film itself.

4 A pleasant reappearance for Bergman fans. Malmsten was a leading man in many of the director’s earlier films through the late ’40s and early ’50s. Before The Silence his last appearance in a Bergman-directed feature was in 1952’s Kvinnors väntan (aka Waiting Women or Secrets of Women).

5 The two first worked together, somewhat briefly, on Gycklarnas afton (aka Sawdust and Tinsel) in 1953. The film, partly because of Nykvist’s striking visuals, is perhaps Bergman’s first ‘great’ film, but it wouldn’t be until 1960 and The Virgin Spring that the two would reunite and form a working partnership that continued right into the 1980s with the television production, Efter repetitionen (aka After the Rehearsal).

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