Great Films: Tystnaden [The Silence] (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)

Of all of the dozen or so Ingmar Bergman films I have seen, The Silence is the one which I have revisited the most often, but not for the reasons one might expect. I certainly don’t consider it his most accomplished work, nor even his most thought-provoking or philosophically rewarding, usually the hallmarks of his finest films. Indeed, some 45 years after its initial release, some of the film’s psychoanalytical insight appears more than a little outmoded. Yet despite these apparent shortcomings, it stands out in the director’s canon as one of his most intriguing and mysterious, a sinister enigma whose chiaroscuro of contemplation and ferocious intensity renders it as something approaching a masterpiece of psychological horror.

The first lens through which to examine The Silence is seeing it as the final part of a wider cycle of works. The films of the so-called ‘Faith Trilogy’, also consisting of the earlier Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1962), all consider in different ways their characters’ reactions to the apparent silence of God in the face of suffering and doubt. In the first film, a daughter’s descent into madness prompts a reconciliation between father and brother, and strengthens the father’s hitherto waning religious faith. In the second, a priest suffering even greater doubts appears to find some solace in the presence of his parishioners rather than through God himself.

Silence was the key to the prior two films, but that the third film in the triptych makes direct reference to this is something of a misnomer, since it is marked not by characters entering into a one-way dialogue with their mute God, but by their entire lack of religious engagement – an absent God rather than a silent one. Yet silence manifests itself in different ways here. Firstly, it is an emotional one, the film populated with characters unable to speak their true feelings and desires for each other. Secondly, there is a linguistic silence, brought on by the film’s curious setting – displaced from the familiar surrounds of rural Sweden, Bergman and his characters inhabit an city in an unnamed country with an unfamiliar tongue.

Bergman, at this time heavily influenced by the minimalist economy of chamber music, had begun in his films to pare down his own artform to become something akin to a ‘chamber film’; both Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light featured only four central characters apiece, and focused on the interplay between their personalities and their unspoken repressed feelings. The Silence sees this stripped back to three – two sisters Anna and Ester, and Anna’s young son Jonas – but with a clear implication to a fourth, the sisters’ dead father. From the outset, the two women quarrel, and use the absent father as a weapon against each other, but as we shall see elsewhere in the film the exact nature of their relationships to him are never made abundantly clear.

From the very first scene, inside an oppressively hot train carriage, the differences between the two sisters are immediately apparent. Anna sits uncomfortably in the heat, sweating profusely, limbs spread wide apart, while by contrast Ester in the same conditions appears aloof to them, sitting deep in thought neatly across the carriage from her sister. As the film progresses the gap between their personalities will become more clearly defined. Anna is impulsive, sexually promiscuous and constantly fussing over her appearance; Ester, clearly disapproving of her sister’s behaviour prefers drinking and smoking in solitude, deeply engaged in the more cerebral activity of her job of literary translation. The voluptuousness and apparent rude health of Anna is contrasted in Ester’s increasing ill health; while the former fulfils her carnal desires, the latter struggles for life itself.

Of his many Bergman tributes, Woody Allen in Love and Death (1975) concludes that “human beings are divided into mind and body”, surely a direct reference to The Silence, since Ester and Anna are clearly somewhat artificially representative of these two sides of the metaphysical divide. Whether this is literal or metaphorical within the confines of the film is certainly debatable, particularly when considering how far Bergman will subsequently go to meld two personalities together in Persona (1966). There are cryptic visual and verbal clues to suggest alternative readings: sometimes the sisters are framed as distant to each other, yet other times their faces almost coincide. If they are the same person, what is the significance of Ester’s apparent lesbian attachment to her sister, often manifesting itself in physical jealousy and masturbation?

The Persona comparison, though, is not helpful, since it positions the women at the core of the film; as in Through a Glass Darkly, which is also frequently misread, it is in fact the son who acts as the fulcrum upon which the film tilts between its competing poles. The several times that Jonas can be seen to wind his watch during the film will remind us of the sound of ticking heard over the opening credits; this and the fact that the film opens and closes with the young boy aboard a moving train are clearly temporal and spatial signifiers of the moral journey he is undertaking here, torn between choosing to live his life according to his mother, and the Dionysian body, and his aunt, the Apollonian rational mind. The strange figure of the troupe of dwarves midway through the film highlight the boy’s apparent pre-sexual nature, yet the unmistakably Oedipal relation to his mother suggests approaching pubescent conflict.

The Silence was released in 1963, and Bergman must inevitably have been aware of recent developments in European cinema. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), for example, appears to share certain thematic concerns: the death of God, and the consequent resort to either hedonism or rationalist intellectualism as means to fill the ideological void left behind. And just as Fellini’s film operates under the spectre of nuclear annihilation, so too does Bergman’s: the presence in key moments of tanks and air-raid sirens imply some significant unseen or impending armed conflict. The Silence operates in the same weary post-war landscape of many a film of the previous decade, if not explicitly than tonally, a landscape later viewed in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which operated its own post-apocalyptic dialectic between its intellectual Professor and artisan Writer.

These central concerns are at the core of the film intellectually, and a certain degree of its beguiling mystery is derived from this, yet more important to the tone of the piece is its oddly jarring visual style. Bergman had resumed his collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist when commencing work on the Faith Trilogy, and it is in The Silence where the partnership became more experimental in terms of composition and framing. As a man equally of the theatre as of celluloid, there are times elsewhere in the trilogy where the director appears to be doing little more than effectively filming a stage.

Though outwardly dismissive of some of his contemporaries like Michelangelo Antonioni, there is a sense from this film onwards that the new dimensions of visual language being explored by other European directors had begun to rub off on him. The range of shots noticeably increases, making extensive use of both close-up and deep-focus. For an example of the former, see how he draws attention to Ester’s drinking and smoking as she fiddles with the radio she is listening to: the camera tracks her hand movements, and the scene becomes intensely subjectively hers, penetrating her psychological state. By contrast, other scenes frame the sisters in separate rooms, one glimpsing the other caught in deep-focus through the doorway, physically representing the mental distance between them. If Bergman is conducting a chamber quartet, then Nykvist is using the full orchestra. The use of diegetic music, sparing and always in some way interacting with the characters, also seems to be penetrating their psyches further.

I began by saying that The Silence is the most intriguing of Bergman’s films, and I think that the reason why lies somewhere between its psychological concerns and its strange aesthetic. The film seems to inhabit the same hellish outer/inner world that would be seen in much of horror cinema: the crazed post-traumatic mind of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), the Freudian infernos of Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and through to its mainstream apotheosis in The Shining (1980). And going back to The Silence, as the young Jonas wanders the corridors of the strange hotel where his mother and aunt have disembarked, is it so hard to imagine them as the same corridors the young Danny Torrance explores in his pedal car in Kubrick’s seventeen years later?

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