Backlog #14: The Silence (1963)

The Silence is a spare, tense film. Two sisters, who clearly do not get on at all, are travelling through central Europe on the train. The older sister is a tired, strained, emotionally repressed spinster suffering from a chronic illness. The younger is more vibrant, the embodiment of physical sensuality. One is an academically gifted writer, the other at a glance more uncomplicated and straightforward. The boy, who is the younger sister’s child, is placed as the neutral character here, between the two opposing characters of the women.

All of this is established in the opening scene in the train carriage. On a broiling hot summer afternoon, Ester sits stock still in a tweed jacket, open in contempt of her sister, who lounges around in comfort on the carriage bench in a summer dress. The boy meanwhile, stares out of the carriage window at the passing scene outside.

We then move to a large central European town, generic in nature, but clearly troubled, by the tanks rolling through and the air of authority around. The film is mainly confined to a grand, but fusty hotel that is empty of guests and has seen better days. Here Ester remains in her room typing out manuscripts, coughing in fits and brooding over her fate. She and her sister are suspicious of each other to the point of paranoia. Eventually Anna leaves and goes out into the street, encountering sensuality and eroticism in the form of a cafe bartender and a couple in the cinema – experiences that she is incapable of resisting.

Ester senses what has happened and is horrified when Anna relates these events to her. The polarized emotional grounding of both sisters becomes apparent. Ester pleads with her sister to stay with her. Anna decides to go in search of another encounter with the bartender. This develops further when Ester confronts Anna in bed with him. Ester is confronted with the reasoning that her goodness and skill is a construct built to obscure her repressed sexuality and emotions and her hatred of herself and others. Anna is not a sympathetic character, being vain and shallow to a fault, but she is positive and does not have her sister’s hang-ups.

The Silence is an exploration of two different types of character and emotions; of what happens when our relationships break down and we lose the nerve and will to communicate; of whether knowledge and wisdom will result in happiness or neurosis and fear.

Bergman developed some of these themes later on in Cries and Whispers on a wider, more colourful palate. The Silence is more low key, less demonstrative but possibly more powerful as a study of these themes. Certainly the way that the sex suddenly enters the closed, gloomy world of the sisters shocks us. The lack of dialogue and the wide angle shots of Ester’s bedroom backed with lengthy close-ups on the character’s faces, enclose her loneliness (for me typified by the sequence where she and the decrepit waiter falteringly attempt to connect over Bach’s music) and present to us the horror (to her and us) of her situation.

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