• The Silence

    By Leo Braudy

    Two women, Anna and Ester, accompanied by Johan, Anna’s ten-year-old-son, travel slowly through the night by train into a foreign country that seems to be at war. They are sisters, it will turn out, perhaps lovers. We will never discover the reason for their journey, to a place where the inhabitants, the culture, and the language are unknown to them. Perhaps it is to pare down or discard the normal trappings of their lives, to take the consequences of who they turn out to be.

    The Silence (1963) was originally titled God’s Silence, and it is the third in what Ingmar Bergman refers to as a trilogy, whose previous two films—Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1962)—explore explicit questions of religious faith. Following his great international successes with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman here tries to come to terms with the pious rigidity and strangled emotional life of his own upbringing at the hands of a father who was a Lutheran clergyman and, later, court chaplain to the king of Sweden.

    But both earthly and heavenly fathers are absent from The Silence, whose bleak setting is based on Bergman’s own experiences of European cities after World War II. Outside is an incomprehensible world of unreadable street signs, surging crowds, and tanks roaring in the middle of the night. Inside is a formerly grand Hotel Europa, where the three travelers have taken rooms.

    The Silence is in part a prelude to later films, in which Bergman has shifted his focus from God to people, from theology to psychology. But ideas are inert without visual expression, and it is Bergman’s genius to invite us, through extreme close-ups, to enter the mystery of people, of their faces. This preoccupation with faces, what they reveal and what they hide, is enhanced in The Silence, as in so many of Bergman’s films, by the reappearance of brilliant actors and actresses from his “stock company.” Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom were both in Winter Light, and Jörgen Lindström shows up at the beginning of Persona (1966). In the bare rooms of The Silence, where Anna and Ester battle each other for Johan’s soul, Bergman—crucially aided by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, with whom he continued to work for most of his career—intensifies the exploration of light and time which he began in Winter Light.

    The unfathomable “silence” of this city has reduced the adults in the triangle to an almost zero level of communication with the outside world. Every personal connection is oblique and truncated, creating an ominous atmosphere in which gestures and symbols are often fugitive or vaguely menacing. Bergman calls it “a rendering of hell on earth—my hell.” But this hell also mirrors what the real experience of travel can become when ignorance of language and custom provokes a helpless regression to childhood and its sometimes desperate effort to decipher meaning.

    For the young and curious Johan, wandering the corridors of the strangely vacant hotel, the brooding foreign city is merely the shell of an adult world whose impenetrable emotional climate is determined by his mother and aunt. (This is made more palpable by the pervasive heat and unrelieved sweating.) As Bergman has remarked, “My impulse has nothing to do with intellect or symbolism: it has only to do with dreams and longing, with hopes and desires, with passion.”

    Anna and Ester form two sides of a whole person, a theme Bergman would go on to further explore in Persona. Anna is defined almost entirely through her physicality—washing, anointing herself with perfume and lotions, getting dressed and undressed, having sex, watching others have sex. Ester, the translator, with her typewriter, paper, and pens, is instead a creature of language—suffering from the lung disease that suffocates her, masturbating, smoking, drinking, and thinking of sex as a mechanical matter of “erections and secretions” that disgust her. Her body in ruin, only words seem to keep her alive.

    Amid the noise, music, and silence that layer the soundtrack, Anna and Ester are locked in a cryptic struggle that plays out before Johan’s eyes and in his feelings. As in many of Bergman’s films from this period on, the lessons of human nature are to be learned from the lives of women. Although we see many things that he does not, Johan’s perspective is the spine of the film. It is the movement of his sympathies from his seductive mother to his intellectual, ailing aunt that gives coherence and force to Bergman’s meditation on human frailty.

2 comments

  • By Matthew Bradley
    November 26, 2008
    01:05 PM

    The Silence is a film about the slow persistence of time. The story features three characters: Anna, the mother who has lost her morality, Ester, her sickened sister, and Johan, the innocent youth caught in between. Set in a hotel in a foreign land, the setting serves to heighten the isolation and confusion present in these characters by reducing their ability to communicate down to the most basic levels. The two characters of Ester and Anna are like the opposing sides of the same coin. Ester lay in bed and is forced to entertain herself, sucking down cigarette smoke and alcohol despite her condition. Anna takes great pride in her grooming, spending many long minutes in the bathtub and attending to her hair. With her, everything must be perfect, but Ester cares more about the strength of her intellect than her outward appearance. What one makes important, the other one seems to abandon. Despite their differences, only they two can understand one another. Johan spend most of his time roaming the halls of the hotel, opening himself up to experiences, but he also shuns contact with most of the other characters. The only ones he openly interacts with is the troupe of little people. This group takes him in as one of their own, dressing him up and playing as a child is apt to do. The little people, despite their age, remain free to indulge themselves in the same entertainment that one would expect from a child, not an adult. Their attitudes reflect more on their stature than their life experiences, entertaining the idea that it is possible to remain young at heart and still be an adult. The camera work in The Silence features a juxtaposition of framed still shots, conveying loneliness and stagnating the flow of time, and the sweeping shots up and down the hotel corridors, conveying possibilities and pressing the movement of time forward. Many shots are in looking out or up looking down, further separating the characters from the world around them. During times of intensity, the camera becomes more level, and closer in on the characters, almost pulling the emotion out of the faces and onto the screen. The frankness of the sexuality of this film is the most dominant aspect. Anna is tortured by her carnal desires, and her actions serve as a stark contrast of liveliness when compared to the dour, simple pleasantries involved in Ester’s life. Anna’s first trip out of the hotel turns out to be a catalyst for her sexual trysts, as she encounters a couple not ashamed in their inhibitions. Her initial reaction is disgust, but she soon realizes the power the couple holds over her and turns it to her advantage in her relationship with her sister. Her use of sex as a way to manipulate her sister is as shocking as her callousness when choosing a mate and the stark portrayal of the sexual actions. This film is an examination of death versus life, both in the sense of being “dead” while still alive and in living after death. Bergman explores how people define life and what sorts of fear persists about dying and living a full, rich life. Ester fears that her life is empty and that she has given nothing of importance to the world. Anna fears that she has lived too much, using her sister’s weakness as an excuse to lash out with sexual leniency. Johan seems to strike the perfect balance between the two, able to investigate the inner workings of his surroundings without being overwhelmed. With The Silence, Bergman creates a dramatic triangle that investigates the human tendencies towards life, sex and death.
    Reply
  • By Erik L. Smith
    December 05, 2013
    09:04 PM

    What I got out of The Silence was that true communication goes beyond words, and that true communication transcends death or absence. The letter from the aunt is not a letter, but a list of words translated from the language with which the aunt and the boy shared a curiosity. The words unimportant useless in themselves, create a bond that words in a letter cannot relace. They are something private between the aunt and the boy that they shared together and which he can keep as a unique communication between them and a sharing of private thing. As the mother cools off in the wind from the open train window, completely unappreciative of the connection re the letter, the boy finally sees his mother for the hedonist she is. The boy realizes that he has had more communication with a dead person than he has had, or will ver have, with his own mother.
    Reply