The Silence

cast: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, and Jorgen Lindstrom

director: Ingmar Bergman

96 minutes (15) 1963
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

The Silence (aka: Trystnaden) is included as a part of the ‘faith trilogy’ boxset along with Through A Glass Darkly and Winter Light. If you have a google for the faith trilogy you’ll not find much mention of it outside of this particular collection, though this does not mean that these are three completely unconnected films that have been jammed together to make a nice boxset. The idea of the three films being a trilogy reportedly stems from a note made by Bergman on the first edition of the scripts. In truth, the three films do not form a trilogy in the Star Wars or Lord Of the Rings or even Spider-Man senses of the term, in fact their grouping together as a trilogy is more a case of Bergman getting the first critical punch in by stating that three films conceived and written separately in fact share a common theme, namely the movement from a tenuous faith in God (Through A Glass Darkly) all the way to living in a universe completely devoid of the spiritual and emotional support spoken of in Christian thought. That is to say, albeit in a long-winded manner, that The Silence is a pretty harrowing film – an astonishingly beautiful and cerebral film, but a harrowing one nonetheless.

Esther (Ingrid Thulin), her sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and her nephew Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) travel by train from Sweden to some country in the south in order to help Esther overcome her life-threatening consumption. Which country is never made clear and the language they speak there is gibberish. Even the name of the city they travel to, Timoka, was a word pulled by Bergman out of a guidebook to Estonia (apparently it means ‘pertaining to the executioner’). From the train, the trio move to a grand but dilapidated hotel where they sit and swelter in two adjoining darkened rooms, slowly going mad.

Esther initially rallies in the heat, getting up from her bed and smoking and drinking and masturbating before she realises that she needs to get herself under control. Thanks to the attentions of a kindly, elderly maitre d’hotel, she eats and starts to talk to her nephew, a lonely child who spends his days roaming the hallways before he comes across a troupe of performing midgets who dress him as a woman (yes I know… such a cliché but the clichés had to come from somewhere!). Meanwhile, her sister Anna tries to escape from the hotel, popping into a cabaret where she sees a couple having sex, this inspires her to seduce a barman and have sex with him despite their lack of a common language. When she returns to the hotel she washes out her underwear in front of her sister and the film’s central relationship is revealed; the two sisters are trapped… Anna hates Ester and yet is unable to leave her (she considers taking the train back home at least three times), while Esther loves Anna to the point of sexual lust but maintains a distant and superior attitude towards her younger, more passionate and less intellectual sister. Caught in the middle is Johan who loves his mother despite her refusal to play the role of the mother, while Esther loves Johan despite his refusal to return the emotion. The film’s most important scene occurs when Johan oversees his mother kissing the barman and then dragging him into an empty hotel room. He informs Esther of this and Esther appears… humiliated by walking in on her sister but able to enrage her sister by simply saying “poor Anna,” prompting Anna to switch from laughter to tears.

One of the reasons why Bergman has such a reputation and such a strong following is that he emerged fully-fledged as a cinematic author. This means that from the very beginning, his films have been open invitations for critics and members of the intelligentsia to dissect, interpret and speculate about. The Silence is slightly less well known than The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries but it remains popular in critical circles because the film only features 38 lines of actual dialogue. Indeed, while the title can be read metaphorically as being about existing in a state where God is silent or absent, it can also be read literally as a film where there really is not much talking. This lack of exposition means that the film can be interpreted in any number of different ways, some of which I’ll share with you now.

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The film has a very real sense of humour that cuts through what would otherwise be a spectacularly bleak and tedious viewing experience. For example, the title of the film is also a joke about its main protagonist, Ester. Ester is a professional translator, who translates whole books, works of art, and yet not only can she not speak to her own sister, but also she cannot make sense of the country she finds herself in. When she first encounters the maitre d’hotel she picks up the words for face and hand. Later in the film she promises Johan a list of all the foreign words she knows and while Bergman is coy about what it actually is that Ester writes for Johan (one obvious possibility being that she is his real mother), the words ‘hand’ and ‘face’ are still the first two on a very short list. This sense of cultural estrangement is multiplied by shots of the streets outside the hotel. The hotel itself is empty apart from some dwarves and some staff but the streets are full of people who all walk in the same direction without saying a word… what they are doing is as impossible to discern as Bergman’s made up language. Similarly, at one point a tank makes its way past the hotel (a piece of crudely phallic imagery according to Susan Sontag) but where it might be coming from, or going to, is similarly unclear… is there a war on? Ester, the great translator of foreign knowledge and customs has no idea or interest, so consumed is she both body and mind by her illness and her relationships.

Woody Allen once pointed out that The Silence is a film that only opens up once one realises that Ester and Anna are parts of the same woman. This interpretation carries considerable weight as where Ester is glacial and deliberate, Anna is impulsive and hot-headed. Where Esther dresses in a very masculine style (only really taking on her truly seductive feminine form when drunk and out of her mind), Anna is constantly washing and dressing seemingly in order to appeal to men. This interpretation also explains why Ester sees Johan as her responsibility and why she so bemoans his refusal to love her, and makes the seemingly incestuous lesbian relationship between Anna and Ester seem less like the hot Swedish action that made this film a controversial commercial success upon release, and more like a metaphor for self-absorption and the desire for one part of a personality to dominate and consume the other.

The real genius of this film is that it is made in such a way that it seems to be incredibly intellectually dense without Bergman ever offering any substantial answers to the questions that drive the film onwards. Whose child is Johan? How did Ester and Anna fall out? Were Ester and Anna lovers? What was written on that piece of paper? Was the maitre d’hotel a future version of Johan thereby explaining why he cares so avidly for Ester and insists upon showing Johan pictures of a funeral? Bergman is coy on all of these matters and yet the film is so beautifully shot and acted that the lack of real tangible information only makes you want to speculate… an activity with a long history.

Before classical myth became uniform and agreed upon and depending upon which area you visited in classical Greece, you would encounter different tellings of the same myths; myths that put different accents on different things or which changed the outcomes. Indeed, once myth moved from being something told by itinerant bards to becoming something that was performed at festivals, dramaturges competed with each other over different retellings of the same stories. One reason for this is that in a culture that is geographically spread out and composed of relatively isolated pockets, the only shared frame of reference is likely to be a body of religious myth, spread in previous generations by bards. As a result, if you wanted to share your speculations about the universe, you would do so with reference to a shared text. This means that rather than writing about some fictional characters having relationship problems, the dramaturges would use well-known characters from the past and whose stories and characters were familiar to the audiences. That way you could share your thought experiment without sounding like a philosopher or a nutter on a street corner.

This tendency to myth continues to this day in historical interpretation and as a means of writing about one thing, such as the sense of cultural detachment felt by Vietnam veterans upon returning to the US, while writing about something else, namely a war between humanity and aliens involving time dilation (as in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War). In a way, criticism also continues this tradition as it works by giving people a shared set text upon which to exchange ideas about things. Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence is deeply symbolic and an incredibly textured film and yet it is by no means clear what specifically it is about beyond an unhappy love triangle. As such, when Woody Allen opines that the film is best understood as being about two aspects of the same woman, he is simply putting forward a psychological thought experiment about how a woman’s personality might be split in two, and how it might behave in the ways depicted in this film. Allen’s interpretation of The Silence is no more ‘correct’ than one telling or another of the story of Pandora’s Box and it is no more real than the speculation about the smoke monster in Lost. All of these arenas of thought can be understood less as searches for the truth and more as opportunities for intellectual play. Bergman’s The Silence is a perfect playground because it is as vague as it is informationally dense.

The film’s performances are little better than mime. What actually is said serves as little more than set dressing for the procession of closed doors, knicker-washings, people going out, people coming in, people smoking, people fucking that fills the film. Thulin claims the film simply by being icy, clearly repressed and joyfully unhinged when that control slips, but I can’t help but feel that her icy aloofness works so well because this is an icy and aloof film. Lindblom, by contrast, has to be passionate and impetuous and icy and aloof, making her performance rather shapeless through no fault of her own. Indeed, when she finally gets to be passionate she is a force of nature.

Also worth noting is the manner in which Bergman manages to make a crowded, sunny street seem cold and emotionally distant. Traditionally, darkness and cold play these thematic roles, but Bergman manages to make a sunny, bustling southern holiday town feel as remote and inhospitable as a mountain hut in the middle of a blizzard. His direction throughout the film is simply mesmerising from the weird, stilted sexual tension between the sisters to the squalor of the cabaret. The Silence is a film about loneliness and despair featuring almost no dialogue and very little plot, and yet it is a film that is impossible to leave alone. Like a sore tooth, it commands repeated prodding and probing, challenging you to return to its scenes and ideas and think about them again and again. It is undeniably the work of a genius, but don’t believe anyone who claims to know what it’s all about.