Reviews & Commentary

The Silence (1963)

Also known as
Tystnaden (original)
Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman
Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, Jörgen Lindström

Two women, Esther (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), travel by train to a hotel in an unnamed foreign city along with Anna’s young son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström). Esther is dying and is left in the hotel room while Anna goes out to have sex with a waiter and Johan explores the hotel.

Like the two preceding films in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith”— Through a Glass Darkly and Winter LightThe Silence is a series of failed communications, and continues the exploration of the search for meaning in a world where God is silent. So silent is he in this film that he is barely mentioned. A church is mentioned in passing as a cool place where Anna had sex with the waiter; the church in The Silence is a wholly corporeal place, devoid of grace, offering only bodily comfort. And like in Winter Light, the spectre of war hangs over The Silence: outside the train on their way to the city, they see lines and lines of tanks outside the window.

There’s something artificial about the tanks; not only are they a synecdoche for war, but they are a stylised, artificial synecdoche — an abstraction of an abstraction. Like language, which very pointedly fails throughout the film; the locals speak a made up gibberish, and Esther and Anna, while speaking the same language, continually fail to communicate with each other. The only moment of understanding is when they are silent, listening to Bach on the radio; as in Persona, only music offers some modicum of solace, of grace. But that moment of unity is broken also, by Esther and Anna’s unwillingness to communicate with each other; when Anna says the music is beautiful, it’s as if Esther resents the intrusion into her world of intellectual pleasure.

Esther, a translator, looks for meaning and purpose in her work. Anna meanwhile looks for meaninglessness in sex: it feels good she says that she and her lover can’t understand each other. This is I think a rebellion against her older sister. Where Esther has devoted her life to coaxing meaning out of language, Anna looks for purely corporeal, nihilistic pleasure in sex.

It’s a bleak film. As in the preceding films of the trilogy, only love offers a glimmer of hope, but it is weaker than before; where there was genuine hope for Minus and David that love is real and love is god in Through a Glass Darkly and that Tomas would accept Märta’s love in Winter Light, Anna seems determined to detach herself from everything: when she finally leaves Esther to die, taking Johan with her, she creates a distance also between herself and Johan, who genuinely seemed to love Esther, and who, with Esther’s letter explaining the few words of the foreign language she was able to learn, symbolically carries with him her search for meaning in language. As Strindberg wrote, humans are to be pitied.

Written by Kalle on Friday July 31, 2009
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 1960s, ingmar-bergman

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