By Jason McBride (Seattle, Washington, US)
The legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman devoted his career to exploring questions of God, death and humanity’s search for meaning in the gusty void. The Silence is no different, but instead of depicting chess games with Death or preachers grumbling about their lost faith, Bergman crafts a world utterly stripped of spirituality and allows desire and vanity to take the reins.
So yes, there’s a lot of sex and nudity (for 1963), and it’s not always easy to decipher where it’s all going. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. Bergman knows he’s made a big nothing, so he juices it up the way he always does, with humans rather than characters, shattering dialogue, and the always exquisite camerawork of Sven Nykvist.
We start out in a train compartment; the stoic Ester (Ingrid Thulin), sick with a respiratory ailment, immediately commands our sympathy by practically swallowing her handkerchief as she convulses in silent coughing fits. Her sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), introduced with sensuous beads of sweat clinging to her neckline, shuts her son Johan (Jörgen Lindström) out of the compartment to take care of her sister, leaving the wide-eyed, cereal-box-perfect blond boy to stare with fascination at an endless line of tanks mobilized for a war that will never be seen or identified.
The country will also never be known, but the trio stops in one of its towns and puts up in a hotel, a monument of Belle Époque extravagance whose endless corridors must have inspired Stanley Kubrick when he made The Shining. Anna, despite her sister’s illness, primps up to go out, getting Johan to scrub her back in the tub and taking a topless beauty rest with her son at her side. Anna’s sole means of navigating life is sex, so when she asks the pre-pubescent Johan why he stares at her feet and he replies, “They walk you around … all on their own,” she seems uninterested in his precocious, child logic (which also alludes to The Silence’s mechanistic reality).
But Anna isn’t “into her son”; that’s just how she engages with the opposite sex. Not that Bergman balks at perversity—or whatever you want to call it in this goatish alternate reality. We learn that the promiscuous Anna is still married to Johan’s father, but the supposedly upright Ester never brings that up when she begs her sister to call off the rendezvous with the man she met earlier that day.
“It’s such torment,” Ester says, “I feel humiliated,” kissing her sister on the neck as Anna coldly pushes her away. Their faces are not those of siblings, but of pathetic, jilted lover and disgusted partner who has lost interest.
Confused? Remember, we’re in Bergman’s Twilight Zone. The rules aren’t the same here. The film opens with a relentless ticking, evoking the aforementioned mechanization and this reality’s empty slog through time. All we see of the mysterious town is a hive of drone-like (mostly) men scurrying through a square in a racket of construction and commerce. There is no nature, and certainly no love; but there is sex, and it takes place in a dark theater, as feverish and anonymous as the dizzy throng outside.
Anna and Ester are strangers to the town, but they traffic in the same futility. As the bartender Anna takes to bed lifts her skirt from behind, she sobs at this emptiness and grips the metal frame like prison bars, while Ester, having glibly declared she no longer wanted to live, writhes in terror when faced with actual death.
“We try out attitudes and find them all worthless,” she says. “The forces are all too strong.”
In other words, Anna’s promiscuity and Ester’s apathy are only stopgaps against fate’s overwhelming power. Anyone who thinks they can hack suffering through some posture or system can only look forward to a humbling upset. The only characters who show any joy or camaraderie are visiting circus performers, indicating a more sustainable relief may lie in art and creativity.
This was certainly my experience watching The Silence. From the first scene, Bergman lets you know he will be squeezing every drop of cinematic potential out of his three main players and their limited locale. But this is just as much cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s film. Nykvist writes with the camera, framing his subjects with stunning compositions and completing his “sentences” with graceful swoops and zooms. In a macabre scene, Johan examines Ester’s labored breathing as she sleeps. Instead of cutting from her face back to Johan’s reaction shot, Nykvist boosts the intensity by lowering the camera from Ester’s face to her fingers as they twitch like the appendages of some dying animal.
Most memorable, however, are Johan’s extensive wanderings through the gloomy halls, essentially a dark forest where the boy matures through encounters with human folly and death. After witnessing his mother slip into a room with the bartender, Johan turns from them and approaches us. Nykvist employs a long shot for the corridor, but as Johan reaches the middle of the hall, the camera swings up into a direct overhead shot. The boy stops, looks both ways and proceeds left. The direction doesn’t matter; he has chosen a path, a path that leads away from his mother’s traumatizing exploits and back to his aunt. From here Johan ceases his wanderings and bonds with Ester.
Such visual exposition marks Bergman as a master filmmaker and The Silence as a technical marvel. The film ends the same as it begins, on a train, except the child staring out the window is Anna, whose sultry gaze elicits a disapproving glower from her now-studious son, who then ignores her to read a letter from Ester. Anna’s face sinks with the realization that the forces are, indeed, too strong.