Screening Log #14: The Silence (1963)

The Silence PosterWritten and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Starring Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom and Jörgen Lindström

 

 

 

 

The final film in Ingmar Bergman‘s loose trilogy about faith is perhaps the most allegorical of the three. The film revolves around the relationship between two sisters and a son as they stop in a hotel so the elder, Ester (Ingrid Thulin) can rest. The sisters are clearly delineated as binary opposites: Ester represents the Apollonian disposition of intellectualism and disembodiement – she works as a translator of texts and is possessed of a loosely defined but seemingly incapacitating illness – and Anna (Gunnel Linblom) the Dionysian excesses of the body, living to fulfill her more physical desires. The child, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), is presumed to belong to Anna, though this is complicated through the course of the film.

He Is a Passenger and He Rides and He RidesThe dichotomy between the sisters is posited from the film’s very first shots, Anna sitting in the car of a train, sweating and complaining of the heat while Ester sits, drawn into herself and seemingly cooler. Johan shuttles between them, leaving the cabin to look at the men who work on the train and stares out the window as an urban scene rolls by, following by a procession of tanks and vehicles of war. This image is reinforced later when Johan watched a tank rumble through the streets of the city at night. Bergman employs the imagery of war to gesture toward the tension between the sisters and how it affects Johan and their relations to him. He functions as both the hinge of their relationship and an object that they seem to struggle to influence.

The hotel in which the trio stays is populated by strangers from a strange land; no one in this intermediary place speaks the same language – indeed, none of the language that Ester speaks – and so their encounters are predicated on gesture and action more than speaking. Anna leaves the hotel when she can and goes into the city, not speaking the language and has a physical encounter with a bartender (Birger Malmsten) that she later relates to Ester. Ester, meanwhile, forges a paternal relationship with an elderly man who works in the hotel (Håkan Jahnberg). Both sisters forge relationships with men, rendered mute and uncommunicative due to language barriers, who provide them with the varying sustenances that they require. Johan’s father is never once mentioned and the sister’s father has passed away.

The Shadow of A Male PresenceThe world of this film is a world without fathers, a world where communication with male figures is reduced to base gesture. Given its place in the context of Bergman’s “trilogy” interrogating the role of faith and the presence of God, the absence of father figures can be seen to explicate the “silence” of God guiding the lives of  people. Without a larger guiding principle Johan is pulled between the sisters and Bergman often places Johan at the intersection of corridors in the hallways of the hotel, making manifest position at the intersection of these two maternal figures and their polemically opposed positions.

 

The sisters’ courteous rapport breaks down as the film progresses, each resenting the other’s value system and the sense of responsibility they possess toward them. Here Bergman’s dialogue predicts the clipped and acerbic tone of the dialogue in later films such as the evisceratingly brutal dialogue between the sisters and mother figures in Cries and Whispers (1972) and Autumn Sonata (1978) especially. As a team Bergman and Sven Nykvist again demonstrate their peerless ability to dramatically light  and faces, deploying the standard Bergman two shot of faces in different planes looking in different directions to demonstrate their differing viewpoints.

The Bergman Two ShotFollowing a particularly brutal encounter between the sisters – wherein Ester confronts Anna while she entertains her bartender fellow in another room in the hotel – Anna leaves the hotel with Johan to eat. Ester has a panic-stricken moment where she is unable to breathe before finishing the letter she’d promised Johan, explaining some of the words from this other language she’d picked up while in the hotel. Following this Anna and Johan depart, leaving again by train. As they leave Johan produces Ester’s note and begins to read while Anna opens the window to the train cabin and allows herself to be soaked by the rain, embracing the sensual pleasures of the body.

In a world without the possibility of communication obfuscated by language, all that remains for Johan is the word passed down from Ester.  This can be read to represent the efficacy of the faith-based books in the world: “In the beginning there was the word”. Johan stands poised between the rational and the empirical, between the body and the mind, torn between the immediate and the mediated by words in the world. Bergman points the viewer toward the difficulties enacted by language and their inability to communicate as directly as action and offers no conclusive resolution; Ester’s letter to Johan exists in the world but offers no definitive understanding of anything greater than rudimentary concepts, allows him to communicate nothing but the simplest ideas.

Only Mother(s) Can Touch HimInterestingly, beyond gesture, a moment of connection happens between Ester and the hotel worker when they both express a mutual love for the music of Bach, each saying his name. Ester calls him “Sebastian” Bach and the worker iterates “Johan Sebastian”, drawing the connection between the name of the young boy and a love possessed by Ester and not shared by Anna. Here the ambiguity about who is Johan’s mother becomes more explicit; Johan is at once the child of both women and of neither, existing purely as the liminal space between the two women and their respective positions. Johan’s position becomes representative of the posture of humanity, pulled between two opposed forces with only the most basic words to guide communication, standing in the wake of the absence of God. Bleak, yes, but we will always have the coolness of rain on our face, the embrace of another, to comfort us for whatever that is worth.

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