THE SILENCE (1963)

(a film review by Timothy J. Verret)

I referred to Ingmar Bergman’s THE SILENCE yesterday in my blog post about the nondramatic music of his films. I was able to somewhat finish watching the film this morning, though I have seen the film in its entirety before. Like any viewing of a Bergman film, I get so much more out of it after multiple viewings. Since life is always changing, Bergman’s films change, too, in my perceptions and need to understand always more about myself and more about the human condition and how we as humans relate….or not, as is the case with this film.

THE SILENCE is about NOT relating, hence the title of the film. It is about miscommunication, about how two people can speak the same language (Swedish, in this case) and yet be unable to grasp the full complexity of their thoughts beneath their speech; two people who have their emotions firing at all cylinders but the interception also firing to cause huge blocks in honest relating, thus creating a strange and new and different language that is at the center of this film.

Bergman’s films have stories that are so simple and yet so profound. In rare instances has Bergman made films with a large cast (FANNY AND ALEXANDER and SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT are the only ones that come to my mind), instead opting for two or three or four (at the most) main characters in his films. This is probably so the film viewer can focus in greater detail on the depth of human development Bergman always uncovers. THE SILENCE has three characters: Anna and Ester who are sisters, and the third being Johan, who is the 9- or 10-year-old child of Anna’s. They have all taken a train to a town (seemingly, “no man’s land”) where the language spoken there is unable to be deciphered by any of them (which is strange since Ester is a translator). We, as the viewers, can’t understand it either. This choice by Bergman brings the characters and the viewers back to ground zero, to complete confusion, for we need to rebuild a whole new way of seeing and hearing things. We are forced to start over, start from scratch.

One can easily take the stance that THE SILENCE is only about two characters, for the sisters are both sides of one person, i.e., Ester is the intellectual, the rigid side while Anna is the sexual, the sensual side. We all have both of these sides in us. How we choose to process and balance them in relating to others depends on us. By adding Johan to this mix, we get male innocence that is untouched and undeveloped in terms of intellectualism and sexuality. The child actor who plays Johan is a strangely-developed lad; he has a very lanky body and his arms are very long and he seems stooped over all the time. Now, this might be in my imagination but Johan strikes me as a “walking penis.” I might be on to something, as there is a scene where the hotel manager offers Johan a wiener in a disgusting gesture. This would make sense as both Ester and Anna represent devoid and deviant sexual-practicing, respectively, and Johan represents the innocent sexual connection to a “man” which is so intensely desired by the two sisters.

A very large hotel is the setting of the film, and it becomes an over-looming presence for Ester, Anna and Johan. It appears there is no one staying at the hotel except them and a troop of dwarfs who befriend Johan, yet the sisters seem oblivious to these little people (that’s a whole other story to critique for this film). When watching THE SILENCE this time around, I wondered if Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING was influenced by this Bergman film. The reason I say this is because very much like in THE SHINING, the hotel in THE SILENCE seems to be another character in the film. Sven Nykvist, who is Bergman’s always dependable and always daringly brilliant cinematographer, shoots scenes with a gliding motion down the long, long hotel corridors, and this lends to the distance and claustrophobic loneliness (“the silence”) of the characters in the film.

Ester is dying, possibly from cancer (I don’t know, but she smokes and drinks alcohol A LOT). Her sister, Anna, hates that she has to take care of her and wishes she would die. Johan is very close to Ester which clearly infuriates Anna. As typically goes for sexually promiscuous individuals, Anna is very lonely, very afraid, and very sad; she has this in common with her sister, though she would never admit that. Her meaningless sexual excursions are vain attempts at connection and, in fact, they further disconnect her from herself. Ester, on the other hand, takes to masturbating in a chair and yet seems somehow way more in touch with her body, literally and figuratively, than Anna. No attempts at physical and sexual connection work for either of the sisters. It’s particularly disparaging for Anna, who finds real eroticism when her son, Johan, baths her. Anna might feel pleased by this act, but we find it disgusting and quite inappropriate.

The ending of THE SILENCE is stunningly magical and, as I find with most of Bergman’s film endings, hopeful. Ester is abandoned by her sister to die alone in the hotel. Before Anna and Johan leave, though, Ester gives Johan a piece of paper and tells him to read it. She says to Johan, “I will not die alone….do not be afraid.” When Anna and Johan are in the train going home, Johan pulls out the piece of paper. Anna takes it from him and when she reads it, she can’t understand it. Johan, however, starts to read it out loud. He says, “WORDS IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE….” And then he begins to read it silently and his face suggests he understands. Meanwhile, Anna opens a window in the train to let the falling rain was her clean (now that she is free of Ester) but when she looks back at Johan, she is clearly heartbroken not only because she failed in taking care of her dying sister but also, and most importantly, because she has no hope, as she cannot understand Ester’s note to Johan. Johan is our hope for the future, one in which true communication in relationships can take place.

FUNNY SIDE NOTE: I looked back at the blog post I did yesterday about Ingmar and I took to noticing how handsome he was in the picture I posted. I posted on FB that I think I would have liked to have dated Ingmar if I had only knew him. Ingmar Bergman has passed on but if he were here and we knew each other, I know we would be the best of friends (I doubt dating would take place, as Bergman was not gay). But I would have better than dating privileges with Ingmar; I would have someone in my life who seeks emotional depth and human understanding, both professionally and personally. Yes, I would have someone like me.

Timothy J. Verret

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