The Silence
aka Tystnaden
Reviewed in July 2004
Director: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Gunnel Lindblom, Ingrid Thulin, Jörgen Lindström, Birger Malmsten, Håkan Jahnberg. Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman.

Update, February 2010: Sometimes it takes an e-mail from a reader to see the cold, hard facts—in this case, that as much as I remain agnostic to this day about the virtues of The Silence, I cannot pretend that this review does a coherent job of drawing out an intellectual argument to match my gut impressions, whether of thematic disarray or of how the film's striking visuals struggle to elevate a clichéd and often over-determined script. And here I am accusing Bergman, rather than myself, of not expressing a clear idea! I'll hope to get back to The Silence one day and make a stronger pass at cogent evaluation. I'll leave this review posted for now, though, as a document of my first impression. It never hurts to admit when you're wrong, or fess up to the soupy process of grappling for the right way to articulate an ambivalent reaction to an elusive film by an imposing artist, especially one whose other films have brought him so close to my heart, and made me want to like this one more than I do, after two separate tries.

Photo © 1963 Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films
Ingmar Bergman's The Silence vacillates rather strangely through its running time between being an odd project for this director to attempt and being a quintessential Bergman vision. I suppose it's strange in itself to say the film vacillates at all, since the experience of watching it is quite the opposite: in terms of pace and tone, The Silence is a languorous, forward sleepwalk through an ambiguous semi-reality where not a lot seems to happen. In fact, the whole movie is an exercise in style masked as some sort of high-modernist meditation on repressed desire or on the mind/body division, or some such theme that should really be retired by anyone who hasn't got something really gangbusters to tell us, beyond all the familiar homilies. In truth, I don't think The Silence has anything to tell us at all, and the movie is most off-putting when its barely characterized protagonists start spouting Bergmanish recriminations ("I never realized how much you hated me!") that don't seem to suit the particular ambience of this movie.

Peculiarly, then, The Silence is least effective when the director looks and sounds like himself; when he's off copying other directors, which isn't normally a trick that Bergman pulls off (viz. The Serpent's Egg), the results are highly diverting and unexpected. We begin inside a train car which, because Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist are such keen observers of actors' bodies, is palpably, stiflingly muggy, even within the distanced, formally chilly image regime that Nykvist has composed. As the car hurtles forward, carrying the panting, curvy Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), her severe and angular sister Ester (Ingrid Thulin), and Anna's bony, knock-kneed son Johan (Jörgen Lindström), we spy all kinds of incongruous details outside the window: tanks motoring past in the opposite direction, rainstorms. The landscape and later the cityscape of The Silence are entirely archetypal, but archetypal of what, exactly, is extremely hard if not impossible to say. Published essays sometimes describe the country where this threesome travels as "war-torn," others claim it is "dreamlike," others call it opulent or exotic, and what glimpses we get of the outside world are indeed all of these things, though not always at the same time. None of the three main characters understands the language of the land they are visiting, which is partly how "the silence" figures in—almost no one talks to them, and they don't know how to talk back.

Then again, the film is hardly crowded with conversation partners. Once Anna, Ester, and Johan arrive in their palatial, nearly empty hotel, they spend the first third of the movie drifting around their suite, the sisters alternately doting on and irritating each other, the young boy only half-conscious of the cryptic rivalry and ebbs of perverse longing between his mother and his aunt. Fans of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood or other high-modernist novels that offer up neurasthenic, lesbian-coded relationships as inchoate embodiments of a chaotic, bottomless universe should be pleased as punch by The Silence. Otherwise, we sit a little uneasily as Bergman mounts predictable and slightly prurient oppositions—the brunette Anna is carnal and inquisitive, a luscious but erratically accessible mother who cruises the hotel for swarthy waiters; the blonde Ester is bookish and frigid, a bed-ridden translator who spies on her sister while she bathes. In the middle third, Anna and Johan prowl around the rooms and hallways of the hotel. She accidentally espies a pair of randy lovers; he haps upon a team of cabaret-act dwarfs. In the last third, the central trio are cooped back up in their room and the women really turn on each other, all with inscrutable effects on little Johan. Many critics followed a reflex to associate the boy with Bergman, in visual and affective thrall to women he does not finally understand. This line of inquiry, of course, can only go so far, quickly repeating the diluted banalities of Bergman's own pop-biography image. Even more common, and just as limited, is the religious reading, pricelessly and rightfully dismissed by Diane Keaton's character in Manhattan: "I mean, the silence. God's silence. Okay, okay, okay. I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, I mean, all right, you outgrow it. You absolutely outgrow it."

Thematically and narratively, it's hard to fight the feeling that The Silence is a bit of a put-on disguised as a turn-on, escorting us in such solemn fashion through Anna's nocturnal adventures and her queasy rebuffs of her sister's unsettling fixation on her that we're supposed to grant that this is all About Something. The trilogy Bergman began with 1961's tragically focused Through a Glass Darkly was certainly front-loaded with its best entry; 1962's Winter Light has integrity but revisits well-worn Bergman themes of religious skepticism and existential isolation, and The Silence, which debuted in 1963, barely assembles itself into a coherent remark upon anything. Three years later, in his masterpiece Persona, Bergman would return to the idea of two women living in cramped isolation, unnamed desire passing between and around them, but Persona is a work written, filmed, and conceptualized right from the cracks in reality—a pure shot of human identity in mid-dissolve. Little Jörgen Lindstr&öm's in that one, too, but his connection to the Janus-faced women is much more mysterious, which cuts to the heart of why I find the later film so much more satisfying than the earlier one: the Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann figures in Persona are so idiosyncratic in their conflicts and preoccupations, and their ineffable bonds with each other are explored in such creative, shape-shifting ways that they emerge as distinctive individuals and carry the weight of larger thematic readings that don't just feel like warmed-over clichés or overly neat oppositions. In fact, Persona is in many ways about the women's as well as the audience's distress at confronting the fact that these women are neither absolutely similar nor absolutely opposed, though at certain, heightened moments they (and we) are tempted to believe so.

The Silence, paradoxically, is too hamstrung around the idea of opposing these women in superficial, diametrically opposed ways to make Lindblom's Anna or Thulin's Ester very believable as discrete personalities, or to make them articulate vessels for larger conceptual statements. This is not to say that the film never thrives in the middle-ground between poetic abstraction and psychological realism. That uneasy combination helps sustain the movie's intriguingly dreamlike mood, and it leads Bergman to some indelible images, like the famous shot of the tank roving the city streets at night, troubling as both a potential snapshot of something that is "really" happening outside or as a figure for prowling forms of violence or stalemate that linger in these women's worldviews. But, upon seeing that image, we're immediately liable to wonder what's going on in that street, and maybe even to wish the camera would follow it; the waves crashing on the beach in Persona are no less striking, but we still don't look away from the story at hand. The central dilemma of The Silence, then, is that the background ultimately competes with the psychodrama for attention, or else that the psychodrama isn't gripping or nuanced or surprising enough to triumph over the film's sensual textures and elusive backdrops. We aren't sure where to look or what to focus on, and no single idea asserts itself sufficiently to organize or anchor the film.

What saves the movie—and much more than that, what actually preserves it as a viable and re-watchable entry in Bergman's immortal repertoire—is Nykvist's photography, which constantly presents dualities and suggests relationships that are subtler and more lingering than most of what happens in the foreground. Gunnel Lindblom, who gave a corker of a performance in a smaller role in Bergman's The Virgin Spring, has a fascinating, cat-eyed face, but Nykvist is just as absorbed by her body, her posture, her angles and silhouettes. As in so much of his work for Bergman, Nykvist trains his eye on an expressive actress without resorting to simple objectification. Maybe the mumbo-jumbo in the script makes it impossible to see Anna as just a body, but I was more struck by the ceaseless pictorial contrasts Nykvist devises between the oppressively straight lines and right angles of the physical world (the train car, the hotel) and the vivid curves, swells, and fullness of Lindblom and her figure.

At the basic level of the image, The Silence feels like a tug between the animation of the body—even a body weighed down by heat and fatigue, clenched by resentment—and the dull, usually empty, often frigid symmetries of the environment. Ingrid Thulin, probably Bergman's most brittle actress, isn't nearly as interesting to Nykvist or to us as Lindblom is, even though she has the frequent gift among Bergman's muses of looking remarkably different depending on the camera angle. Though Ester's worsening illness is a major arc of the picture, her body never seizes the camera the way Lindblom's healthy one does, and it's your call whether this represents an interesting irony or a bad casting decision. Even if the movie is stacked a little against her, Ester still has some touching scenes with young Johan, plus a doozy of a masturbation scene. Because the movie is never truly interiorized, the shock of watching a woman fantasize about her own sister is a little diluted; even this scene is most interesting for photographic reasons, but given what a vital shot this is, sensual without violating discretion or seriousness, I'm hardly complaining. In general, Nykvist's inspired ways of shooting these actresses makes The Silence a compelling visual study of two women, conferring individuality and piquant eccentricity on both of them, even when the script seems hell-bent on schematizing them into basic foils.

Elsewhere, Nykvist uses the boy's excursions into the hotel as a chance to duplicate the long dollies, overhead glides, and cold formalities of Resnais or Antonioni; later, he frames Lindblom writhing around a bedframe as though she were Brigitte Bardot. Is it a measure of The Silence's vague thematics and trajectories that Nykvist has to practically re-invent the movie for several of its key scenes? Or do these alternations of styles—so many of them as incongruous to Bergman as they are closely associated with various contemporaries—represent Nykvist's way of echoing the dreamlike hybridity and fragmented subjectivity that other facets of the film struggle to illuminate, albeit with less of a memorable payoff? Whichever the reason, I have twice found the film more compelling as a cinemtographer's sketchbook or stylistic collage than as narrative cinema. It augurs well for where Bergman was headed in a few short years, and the precision of the camerawork gives the indulgences of the screenwriting something firm and interesting to play against. Skip it if you're looking for story or if you're not a devotée of the Swedish master, but seek it out for proof that black & white cinematography should never have been phased out, and for a healthy reminder that the work of a brilliant director can be enthralling to watch even when he hasn't fully decided what he's doing. And if you are a struggling director, not sure of what you're doing, here are three words of advice: call Sven Nykvist. He won't be around forever, you know. B


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