The Silence (1963)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Starring Gunnel Lindblom, Ingrid Thulin, Jorgen Lindstrom

What’s particularly interesting about Bergman’s so-called “Trilogy of Faith,” which concludes with this picture and is preceded by Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, is that each one throws us into unfamiliar territory without giving us very much in advance. In the first, we are given four people abreast in the far distance walking out of the water; though where the water is or who the people are is impossible to tell. In the second, a church service happens but just barely while the camera darts around between the various congregants, the murmuring minister, and the empty bounds of the church interior. In this movie, there is a compact train car with a boy and two women; the women are sleepy and the boy is antsy. In Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, being dropped on top of a purposefully intimate, purposefully low-key story works. Something about the chortling people of Through a Glass Darkly who quickly reveal themselves to be a family on holiday (with, naturally, some danger brewing beneath) intrigues the viewer. Winter Light is much more subtle, forcing us to be more patient, but ultimately paying off by making this miserable little service into a microcosm of a miserable little man’s life. I’m not sure that The Silence is as successful as either in its opening scenes, nor do its themes strike as hard later on.

Bergman is one of the directors I trust most, but the slowness of that first scene forces a lull in a movie which is among the most deliberate of Bergman’s oeuvre. There are movies of his which are deliberate (Scenes from a Marriage), meticulous (Cries and Whispers), or even plain slow (The Passion of Anna), but there aren’t many I’d call halting. The Silence jerks and jolts like a rickety train might, occasionally successful but most of the time a little jarring. Perhaps, amusingly enough, it has to do with the quieter nature of the film itself. It isn’t called The Silence for nothing, after all, for there are long stretches in this movie which do not need dialogue, and which certainly do not require our protagonists to say much. Even when characters do try to speak to each other, a language barrier gets in the way. The country where a boy, his mother, and his aunt wind up during this train ride speaks a language that none of them, not even his translator aunt, know. The movie’s most effective scenes feature Ester crying out into the silence around her, as the people who could help her are either unable to understand her language, too young to be able to help, or dead and gone. Towards the end of the film she begins to have trouble breathing, and in a matter of seconds she uses variants on “horror,” “fright,” and “fear.” That sort of monologue is intensely powerful, but for the most part there is little for folks to say in the movie. This relative dumbness forces some unusual images and sights upon the viewer.

What to make, for example, of the theater of little people who scuttle through the hotel, adopt Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) for a few funny moments, perform their act in front of an audience that has found its own entertainment, and then are mostly unseen? These are elements which I find easier to associate with Fellini than Bergman. Here are the dwarfish performers, creating a single long millipede out of their multitude, in the midst of what is a fairly grim movie. How about the specter of war that hangs over the picture, seen in tanks streaming outside the window? Here are the tanks, and then follow the soldiers, as real and frequent and there as Gunnel Lindblom’s breasts. (This sounds like a lewd comment, but both the military presence and Lindblom’s bust are given so much attention by Bergman’s camera that I don’t think they are unrelated.) These images act like the masks of comedy and tragedy; place either over the rest of the film and view that way, and for better or worse the movie takes on that tone. The performers really are a funny bunch, and for Johan, who appears to need a distraction beyond his comely mother and dying aunt, they seem like a pleasant escape; maybe the only laugh of the entire movie occurs while he’s in their amiable custody. And the tanks and the soldiers and what they imply are all chilling, enough to deflate the tumbling dwarves at a moment’s notice.

They frame two sisters, Anna (Lindblom) and Ester (Thulin), who are neither comic nor tragic in themselves. It doesn’t take a genius to make the link to Persona, seeing how the two of them fill in the others’ gaps. In the first shot with the two of them together, both are clearly fatigued from a long train ride, and the rest of the scene shows that neither one able to rouse herself to engage much with the boy. Ester is sick but is dressed for polite bourgeois travel in her white suit, wearing earrings and her hair neatly tied back. She has hollows in her visage, in her cheeks and at the base of her throat. There is more of Anna. She sweats, which Ester does not, and that means little tendrils of hair fall where they will about the rest of her coiffure and her forehead. Where Ester is covered, Anna is, by the standards of early ’60s women’s fashion, extremely forward with her casual-looking shirt (although, like Ester’s, it’s white). Where she aligns with some of the fashion of the time is with her eye makeup, which is sultry and heavy. Johan looks to Ester for a translation of a sign, but he looks to Anna for physical closeness, which she is willing to give out on her terms.

Anna is ambulatory sex, emotionally distant, for most of the movie even numb, but also guided mostly through impulse. It is impulse that sends her into the streets looking for company, for example, just as it is impulse which makes her recoil at the sight of a couple having sex in front of her, and it will be impulse a third time which leads her to bring a man every bit as lusty as herself back to her bedroom. Ester is not well enough for that sort of activity, and doesn’t seem like she’ll be returning to Cupid’s grove on those two feet. Anna is healthy and virile enough to live another hundred years, it seems, although what she would fill those years with, especially those when she loses her physical beauty, is difficult to predict. Ester does not look like she will last out the week, and when she goes she will take an enormous intelligence away with her. What will happen to Johan is much easier to predict. Ester is the source of much of the affection in his life, and when he and his mother leave his aunt, he will leave behind the mothering that he ought to have. With Ester he gets some kindness and attention. With the dwarves, and even with an old employee of the hotel, he gets playtime. With Anna he is the one who holds the brush and scrubs her back while she bathes.

Maybe one of the reasons that this movie didn’t ring true to me in the end is because the fight between Anna and Ester which we all knew was coming feels a little forced. Ester confronts Anna, who is in the middle of something one tries not to interrupt, and it turns out a little unsurprisingly that everyone is a little inadequate compared to everyone else. Ester envies Anna’s good health even if she seems a little shocked by her sister’s behavior (which I don’t think I buy); Anna, one of the most taciturn characters in a taciturn movie, finally rips into her sister. Anna avers that Ester hates her, which Ester of course denies, but Anna pushes on, suggesting that Ester hates herself just as much as she hates her sister. When our father died, she said, you said that you no longer wanted to go on living. She lists reasons that Ester might hang on: Anna, Johan, her job, no reason at all. If that was the case, she asks, then why are you still here? Ultimately, Ester leaves, and the reason for the silence between them has finally come through loud and clear. Resentment has the power to force a wedge between people just as much as real hatred does. It can separate adult sisters emotionally, as Anna and Ester are always separated, or physically, as Anna will eventually leave Ester alone in this hotel to die. The thing is that resentment is a much harder vehicle to carry a movie with than hatred.

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