Bergman 101: “The Silence” (1963)

BERGMAN

The second film in Ingmar Bergman’s inadvertent Trilogy of Faith is to me the most disconnected of the three. I’ve read far smarter film critics than me share their idea on how “The Silence” ties together with the earlier “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Winter Light”. Still I’ve yet to make a satisfying connection and find that this particular Bergman picture stands more firmly on its own.

“The Silence” opens with two seemingly miserable women traveling on a train with a young boy. We learn the three are on their way “home” but are forced to stop for the evening in an unidentified city (at least never identified with certainty) because of one of the women’s unidentified illness. Moreover the unidentified city seems to be involved in or preparing for an unidentified war. That’s a lot of stuff left unidentified but frankly none of those specifics are especially important for what Bergman is up to. They would help thicken a more plot-driven story but this movie isn’t much for plot.

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After checking into a fancy hotel suite the sickly Ester (Ingrid Thulin) immediately climbs into bed while Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) prowls around the apartment in various states of undress. It’s an uncomfortable first glimpse of Anna’s unbridled carnality as she seems to relish the perplexed yet inquisitive gaze of her young son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). Without question Johan is the real victim of the story, caught in the crossfire of two warring sisters. You could cut the tension between the women with a knife and to them the child is collateral damage.

Both Ester and Anna are worldly women without the slightest bit of spiritual conflict and both seem to be on different yet equally self-destructive paths. Ester attempts to drown her unspecific and possibly terminal pain with cigarettes and alcohol. LOTS of cigarettes and alcohol. And her biggest concerns are dying away from home and jealously judging her sister’s every lascivious act. At least she seems to care for her nephew, but her twisted obsession with Anna’s bad behavior often takes precedent.

Anna would rather be out on the town catching the lustful eye of potentially new boy-toys than spend time at the hotel with her son. She blithely flirts with a local waiter followed by a sexual encounter which she relays to Ester with a perverse satisfaction. In fact it seems that Anna is driven by hurting her sister as much as (if not more than) personal pleasure.

The genesis of this bitter and toxic animosity between siblings is another of the film’s unresolved mysteries. So we are left in a similar position as Johan – perplexed, often alone, and in a constant state of observation. Bergman spends a lot of time with Johan particularly as he roams the largely empty halls of the hotel. Johan isn’t a perfect picture of innocence. At one point he pees in the hallway with no shame whatsoever. Later he swipe’s some cherished family photos from the hotel’s elderly porter and then stuffs them under the carpet. Simply put, it’s hard to figure out what Bergman is trying to say through Johan.

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And speaking of the porter, he’s played by Swedish actor Håkan Jahnberg, a veteran of both stage and screen. He’s one of the film’s few glimpses of light. Whenever Ester buzzes he’s there in snap, bringing more booze, collecting soiled sheets, even helping her into bed during one of her spells. Funny thing is we never understand a word he says (there is not a single subtitle when he speaks). Yet his gentle smile and thoughtful mannerisms speaks volumes.

And that’s really all there is to “The Silence”. It plays out like a series of snapshots, linked together by the thinnest of plot threads. No doubt there is plenty of subtext and symbolism that Bergman wants us to wrestle with, much like the previous two films of the trilogy. But unlike those movies, finding any discernible ‘meat to chew on’ here is a chore. The performances are strong as is the cinematography by Bergman favorite Sven Nykvist. But not only is it hard to connect this film to the previous two, it’s just as difficult to connect it to any meaningful point. I can certainly speculate about what it means to me, but where “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Winter Light” made me feel something, “The Silence” left me cold.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

3-5-stars

18 thoughts on “Bergman 101: “The Silence” (1963)

    • No, no, not too shallow. Maybe too violent but not too shallow LOLOL! Seriously though, this one doesn’t make you want to give either of these two women a hug.

      • On the whole so far I’m thinking Bergman was a bit of a sick puppy, probably would have benefitted from therapy in a lockdown somewhere. Which is possibly sacrilegious to think as I know he’s revered by intellectual cinema people. In truth I don’t mind being traumatised by a movie, god knows I’ve been put through more war movies than soft Mick, but at least they have a plot!

      • He’s an intriguing filmmaker for sure. I have to say I love many of the movies he made. This one just didn’t click with me as well as others, specifically the previous two films in this “trilogy”. He’s not for all tastes though.

  1. It’s the darkest film of the trilogy and it’s probably why I love it as I just love dark material and that air of pessimism. It feels more real to me than what Hollywood does.

    • Thanks so much. You’re too kind. I’m not sure how many people followed it but if even a couple of people watch one of these films because of it the project was worthwhile! 👍🏼

  2. Argh! Yet another I haven’t seen. Wow there are some serious holes in my Berman filmography.

    HJey have you seen the doco about him from this year??? I’m wondering if it has any spoilers, I don’t wanna watch it if it does..

  3. Pingback: Bergman 101: “The Silence” (1963) — Keith & the Movies | First Scene Screenplay Festival

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