The Silence (1963)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min

By the time Ingmar Bergman had finished directing Winter Light, he claimed to have come to terms with his agnosticism and the unknowability of God’s existence. The third part of his unofficial Faith trilogy thus offers new dimensions to his long-running spiritual meditations, formally manifesting that existential fear which has run through so many of his films – the universe’s cold, unresponsive silence. It pervades Bergman’s screenplay and sound design with glacial repression, stifling the attempts of estranged sisters Ester and Anna to communicate with each other and their surrounding environment. Though God is not the focus here, His absence still lingers in occasional mentions of the deceased family patriarch.

“When Father died you said, ‘I don’t think want to go on living.’ So why are you still around?”

It is a brief, symbolic nod to a higher power, but a significant one when it comes to understanding the catalyst for The Silence’s modern malaise. Ester is severely ill both mentally and physically, and so when Anna directs this question towards her, it is virtually an attack on her weakened spirit that cannot embrace either life or death. Instead, she wastes away in the oppressive limbo of her hotel room, which resides in the fictional European city of Timoka. Meanwhile, Anna ventures outside in search of adventure, hoping that it might offer her some meaningful, reinvigorating connection with the world.

The Silence is Bergman’s most minimalist screenplay in his career, but this just leaves the door open for some wonderful visual storytelling as we see in the superb opening train scene.

The third member of this travelling party is Johan, Anna’s son, who quietly observes their unsettled relationship and wanders the hotel’s faded Baroque hallways. This architectural marvel is a decaying monument to another glorious era when it might have been populated with posh clientele, though now it is virtually empty to due to some encroaching war. One might almost think of The Shining in the way Bergman symmetrically lines his empty corridors with chandeliers, ornamentations, and embroidered carpets, creating an ornate maze for this young boy to lose himself within and encounter an odd assortment of characters. With little else to keep him entertained, he recklessly shoots off his toy pistol, and when he looks outside a window a military tank rolls aimlessly through quiet streets like a lost child. Maybe aimless violence is simply humanity’s most natural instinct when left to its own devices.

Surely the scenes of Johan wandering the hotel corridors inspired The Shining. The symmetrical framing, the random encounters, and the haunting atmosphere are very recognisable.
A tank wanders a street like a lost child – a portrait of aimless violence.

Well, violence and sex at least. There’s not really any doubt that The Silence is Bergman’s most explicit film when it comes to matters of carnal desire. Being far more comfortable in her skin than her sister, Anna is often shot in the nude while in her hotel room, and there is a touch of Freudian intrigue on Johan’s part as he spies her through a door. When she goes out to the theatre, she reacts with both fascination and disgust at the couple having sex a few seats down from her, which subsequently inspires her to invite a waiter she has had innocent flirtations with back to her room. Meanwhile, Ester’s only form of sexual expression is masturbation, though for her this is barely even a form of self-love. She is wholly disgusted by sex on a sensory level, unable to form a healthy physical connection with anyone else, let alone herself.

The arrangement of faces in Bergman’s frames is remarkably in tune with his characters as always, here crafting an image of Freudian tension.

These are but the symptoms of a contemporary society which has slowly eroded clear lines of communications between its citizens, and left in its place an apathetic void of emotion. Violence persists without purpose, and sex without love. How ironic it is too that Ester herself works as a translator, and yet she is as stumped as Anna and Johan when it comes to speaking with any of the locals. Like the city of Timoka, their foreign language is entirely invented by Bergman, offering a tinge of surrealism to this setting which pushes us and our main characters even further away from any firm reality.

Three layers to Bergman’s depth of field in this one, illustrating a disconnection between each character through the blocking and set obstruction.

This language barrier is partially why so many characters choose to remain silent, and yet even within our Swedish-speaking cast, that quiet tension continues to dominate. Bergman’s sound design flourishes in the absence of dialogue, building out rich aural textures which sensitise us to the tiny movements of each scene, and then break them up with unexpected intrusions – jet planes flying overhead for instance, or the recurring disturbance of a ticking pocket watch. When conversations do unfold, they are often filled with deliberate lies, miscommunications, and purposeful ignorance. Even between Ester and Johan, a simple discussion over how to spend time together cannot settle on a single direction.

“How about you read to me?”

“I’ll show you my Punch and Judy instead.”

The puppet show he subsequently improvises is childish in its cartoonish violence and garbled nonsense, creating a crude reflection of the film’s dysfunctional modern culture. Clear parallels are also well-drawn in the following exchange.

“What’s he saying?”

“I don’t know. He’s scared, so he speaks in a funny language.”

Beautiful detail in the relationship between Ester and Johan, left alone in the hotel together when Anna goes into town. The division between them is helpless, despite the longing to connect.

The disconnect between strangers, neighbours, and family members is thoroughly illustrated in Bergman’s world, but even as he continues to delve even deeper into Ester and Anna’s strained relationship, we even discover a detachment between the human body and mind. These women and their respective Jungian archetypes are thus set in opposition to each other – one sharply intelligent and discerning of the outside world, the other seeking excitement and caring tenderly for her child.

Perhaps this study of a psychological, feminine duality could be read as a precursor to Persona which would come out three years later, though Bergman is not so opaque here with the emergence of his characters’ darker ‘shadow’ selves. Anna is intellectually dishonest, carelessly throwing out lies to torment her sister, and when pushed to answer why she holds so much resentment, she doesn’t hold back in exposing Ester’s cold, arrogant judgementalism.  

“It’s just that you always harp on your principles, and drone on about how important everything is. But it’s all just hot air. You know why? I’ll tell you. Because everything centres around your ego. You can’t live without feeling superior. That’s the truth. Everything has to be desperately important and meaningful, and goodness knows what.”

The Silence marks staggering acting achievements for both Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, especially in a year where both would also give excellent performances in Winter Light.

Bergman’s talents as a writer of cutting dialogue are evidently far from wasted in this film, and yet given the pervasive silence that hangs between characters, monologues like this are exceedingly rare. In fact, all the dialogue in the film’s first half hour might barely fill a single page, leaving Bergman to move this narrative forward and build out characters through rich visual direction. His camera’s deep focus is crucial to the magnificent blocking on display here, opening strong with a five-minute shot of our main trio shuffling in bored discomfort around a train carriage, and later arranging haunting compositions of the sisters’ faces like two parts of a whole.

Relationships illustrated in Bergman’s blocking – Ester lonely in the foreground, Anna and Johan caught together in the background in a wonderful composition.

The power that both Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom draw from Bergman’s shrewd framing in moments like these is considerable. Thulin carries herself with poise and control as Ester, and when her mental agony bursts forth he often catches her haunted expressions from high angles – at one point offering her gentle repose as the porter helps her back into bed, and later casting her in harsh light as she fearfully approaches death.

High angles often intensify the impact of Ester’s breakdowns, peering down at her face from above.

Lindblom too receives similar visual treatment when she probes Anna’s raw vulnerability. Her rendezvous with the waiter at the hotel is little more than an excuse to pour out her contempt on someone who cannot speak back (“How nice that we don’t understand each other”), but this is no substitute for real love. Raucous laughter quickly turns into sobbing as she hangs over the end of the bed, while Bergman shoots her contorted expression and posture from another high angle. Thulin’s acting may have beat out Lindblom’s in their other 1963 film Winter Light, but both are very much on equal footing here, desperately pushing past a mutual repression to uncover profound, existential terrors.

Similarly, Anna’s breakdown towards the end of The Silence hangs her on the end of the bed and diminishes her in the frame.

These noisy eruptions of honest emotion can never survive long in The Silence though. The next morning after Anna’s breakdown, that wordless impassivity she shares with her own family is back in place, even heavier with bitter sullenness. With Ester’s implied death and Anna’s abandonment of her in the hotel room, it appears that disintegration of humanity in an aimless modern society is inevitable. The train which brought these characters into Timoka now departs with one passenger less, and yet the atmosphere onboard sounds just as lifeless as it did at the start. In The Silence, civilisation will persist even in the absence of love and meaning – just as it did before Ester’s passing, and just as it will continue to do through a gradual, noiseless self-destruction of the human spirit.

The Silence is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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