The Silence

Tystnaden/The Silence (1963 Sweden 96 mins)

Prod Co: Svensk Filmindustri (SF) Prod: Allan Ekelund Dir, Scr: Ingmar Bergman Phot: Sven Nykvist Ed: Ulla Ryghe Art Dir: P. A. Lundgren Mus: Ivan Renliden

Cast: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, Jörgen Lindström, Håkan Jahnberg, Birger Malmsten

The Silence is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most important and most perfect films, marking a high point in his distinctive formal experimentation, challenging thematic discourse, and fomenting of radically intimate spectatorial affect. Despite notably increased aesthetic and conceptual challenges, the film was a substantial box office success at the time (Bergman’s last until Viskningar och rop/Cries and Whispers in 1972) in no small part due to the major controversy that erupted over its fairly explicit sexuality (1). Challenging both audiences and censorship laws around the world, The Silence also offered important signs to the future, both in Bergman’s own work – most notably looking to the increased modernism and subject-dissolution of Persona (1966) – and that of others (such as David Lynch and Peter Greenaway). Both marked by and contributing to its historical cinematic moment, the film can also be seen as exemplary of early-’60s European art cinema: in its evocative mise en scène dominated by the crumbling European heritage of a faded baroque hotel; “liberal” but complex and conflicted sexual expression; reasonably abstract aesthetic form that forces the viewer to interpret often very ambiguous images; and thematic treatment of contemporary Western modernity’s culture and subjects as conceptually and existentially in crisis.

In addition to Bergman’s developing thematic concerns, detailed and enunciated here to perfection, perhaps the clearest link to his previous work is the commanding central performances by Ingrid Thulin (Ester) and Gunnel Lindblom (Anna). These idiomatic Bergman actors are pushed to a kind of performative and conceptual excess in The Silence. Their remarkable presence is framed and rendered via a similarly extravagant yet also very disciplined aesthetic form exhibiting both a joyous freedom of filmmaking and superb structuring logic (always one of Bergman’s great skills), characterised by a subtly oneiric tone. That the result is so of-a-piece is in part because the world and relations shown on screen seem so unfamiliar and “alien” while nonetheless creating the kind of interiority and intimacy that characterises Bergman’s best work. One causational spark for the film’s aesthetic innovations and ubiquitous dream-like mood seems to have been Bergman’s determination “to make a film that would obey musical laws, instead of dramaturgical ones…. A film acting by association – rhythmically, with themes and counter-themes.” (2) Inspiration and structuring principle came from Béla Bartók in particular, the distinctive 20th-Century Hungarian composer who combined modernist compositional techniques with indigenous folk music motifs. The affect and temporality of the finished film are summed up well when Bergman says: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.” (3)

It is contextually and thematically important that The Silence is set in a mysterious Eastern European location, the fictional city of Timoka invented by a filmmaker from a technically “neutral” country during the Cold War. Bergman was often criticised in the 1960s for being a “non-engaged” filmmaker. But making films about a crisis-ridden modernity from the relatively safe position of a materially comfortable and peaceful state at Europe’s northern fringes provides for a different perspective, including the luxury of doubling back on its own gaze. This can be seen as played out by the apparently privileged characters, both economically (these traveling Swedes seem better off than the majority of the still part-agrarian society that is seen through the hotel window) and in their apparent ability to move through a divided Europe with ease while also seeming to have no real knowledge of its more “othered” realms. While this marks such figures, and Bergman, as bewildered by an alien reality as bunkered away in their hotel, they are, more broadly, varyingly self-conscious participants in – and expressions of – the psychological, moral and philosophical crisis that a fragmenting European culture (itself with increasingly “alien” characteristics) brings about.

As with Bergman’s masterly 1968 film Skammen/The Shame, where war is monstrous in large part because driven by politics that are absurd in their impenetrability (akin to metaphysical belief), there is no explanation for war in The Silence beyond the presumed – itself frequently absurd – Cold War opposition. When Johan (Jörgen Lindström) sees tanks and artillery through the train window in the film’s remarkable first scene and later a lone tank as it mysteriously rolls into the street outside the hotel, such machines appear as menacingly inexplicable objects without political explanation or justification. Meanwhile, the film’s soundscape – given remarkable presence through long gaps in dialogue and a lack of non-diegetic music – also suggests enormously rich contextual material, the “reality” of which is ambiguous. The soundtrack often seems hyper-real in rendering the rich noise of feet on carpet, a comb through hair and the oral emissions human beings make when they’re alone, while the next moment appearing rather less anchored in the physical space on screen. Low-flying war-plane noise wakes Johan up from a nap but he doesn’t feel it necessary to wake the adults; another scene relays air-raid siren-like sounds, though no one on screen seems to notice. More regularly we hear a ticking clock – first over the credits – suggesting linear time as both an experience and inevitable harbinger of death (particularly through the more explicit real-world threat of annihilation by nuclear war). By its final appearance the ticking is more reflexively presented, when Ester – Johan’s aunt, his mother’s friend or perhaps sometime partner, who works as a translator – is somehow able to make both the sound and an oncoming convulsion (she suffers a serious lung disease) stop by thumping her hand on the bedspread.

Despite its formal elements resulting in Bergman’s most elusive and confusing work to date, The Silence is often seen as completing a trilogy around the notion of faith along with the preceding Såsom i en spegel/Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Nattvardsgästerna/Winter Light (1963), in which the tenuous humanism of the first film (the very unconvincing “God is Love” lecture by the father at the end) and the ambiguous continuation of faith through ritual in the second film (the show must go on in the interests of its performative adherents, a country priest and his small flock), is “answered” with the more overt nihilism of the third (4). However, to see it purely as thematically completing a trilogy in this way denudes the film of much of its complexity and potential resonance – or, alternatively, we can look back on the “faith” theme in the other films as not just concerning religious belief but figuratively addressing modernity’s displacements as well. By not explicitly addressing theological issues, The Silence allows much greater room than its immediate predecessors for secular regimes to come under the microscope – in particular here, setting the tone for the remainder of Bergman’s remarkable ‘60s cinema, the very notion of the human subject itself. And of particular note is that with this film we are, for the first time, without a central male subject or patriarch.

The only “men” in the film are the young Johan, the waiter (a wordless sex object, the film reversing the usual gender dynamics by having Anna pick him up), and the very old hotel porter. The character whose role comes closest to that of a patriarch, or a figure continuing the traditions and values thereof, is Ester. This is highlighted by her articulation of intellectual and moral virtues, a perspective that she holds as essential in large part because it is handed down from the culture she associates with her father. But she is clearly dying. Though Bergman’s treatment of women onscreen can be endlessly debated, the lack of patriarchal power in The Silence is another case in which we can see his work as perhaps more politically interesting than is often assumed, albeit on an unusually abstract conceptual (and skeptically framed) level (5). As Carlos Saura asks in much more clearly codified political and historical, though also no less dreamlike, terms in Cría Cuervos (1976): What are we to do and how are we to live after the death of the Father – be it God, Franco, one’s actual father, or the male ownership of the culture more generally?

Without any role model to speak of, Johan is free – whether he likes it or not – to roam a seemingly absurd world suggested by the decayed grandeur and strange occupants of the hotel and the threatening present-day reality outside. It is in this context, perhaps, that we can best approach a cliché here (thanks to Fellini) of ‘50s and ‘60s art cinema, the boy’s encounter with a “troupe of Dwarves”. On one level at least, this is a joyous episode of potential polymorphous delights where Johan is put into a dress after pretending to shoot one of the diminutive cabaret performers he spies through the door of a room and prompting a spontaneous party. That is, until a father figure intervenes and reasserts the Symbolic order of the day, after which he is politely ushered out while his new friends are reprimanded for their decadence. Following this brush with anarchic pleasure and its hierarchical gender-asserting curtailment, Johan surreptitiously pisses in the corridor of the hotel.

Along with some playful scenes between the old porter and Johan, such interludes provide a “lighter” level to the film’s post-patriarchal suggestiveness and interest in the absurd. Outside the enigmatic heated drama between Anna and Ester, the whole scenario and world here momentarily offers pleasure, experimentation, openness and possibility. All of this can be seen within the context of the filmmaker’s atheistic take on secular beliefs as no less deserving of the skeptical microscope than religious ones: the challenge of looking at life “after” belief – including of course ideology and its attendant institutions – has collapsed. In this way, The Silence’s implications become decidedly socio-political and historically resonant, implications the West would continue to grapple with over the coming decades.

If the Father is gone, absurd, death-like or dying, what kind of portrayal do we have here of the (I think importantly gendered) subject born of his rule and traditions, yet now theoretically “free”? It is in this complex familial, political, historical, cultural, metaphysical and moral context that we can see the very ambiguous relationship between the two central characters, if indeed we do see them as separate entities. The crisis-ridden subject on screen can be seen as both produced by the culture that preceded it and as subversive of it. Anna and Ester are true “symptoms” of history. Though Persona will go on to emphasise this potential more violently, and in some ways literally, it is quite possible to see Ester and Anna as suggestive of a singular human subject in crisis, here through binary splitting along the seemingly Cartesian lines of “mind” and “body”. In their mutual tension and ambivalence (jealously and desire, resentment and love, rebellion and reliance), such entities are neurotic to the point of absolute dysfunction. While later dialogue will conceptually draw this out, the physically over-determined on-screen performances make for much more immediate affect.

Gunnel Lindblom’s brooding, casually insolent performance is remarkable. It is both troubling and excessive, and we are never quite sure whether we are watching the actor, her movements and presence, or the role she is playing. Anna/Lindblom spends most of her time sweating and sighing about the heat, washing clothes and herself, grooming and getting dressed, not to mention describing and partaking of sex – endlessly tending to her body, but also moving in ways that don’t seem entirely thought out. Meanwhile, despite the sporadic “eruptions” of Ester’s body in illness, Ingrid Thulin’s expressive conduit is more overtly the characteristic instrument of Bergman’s cinema: the abstracted face. Beautiful in its distinctive way, this face is often more genuinely androgynous than its gender “disguised” form in Ansiktet/The Magician (1958), at times even skull-like. And when The Silence fades-to-black on a close-up, those huge dark eyes glisten as the last, briefly disembodied things we see on screen.

While the first substantial dialogue scene gives us more details of the difficult bond between these two women – and apparent confirmation, should we see them as different characters, that they are sisters with a possibly incestuous history – prompted by Anna telling Ester a series of provocative made-up stories about her sexual exploits in the cabaret and a church, our experience of this ambiguous relationship remains largely through mise en scène – particularly the choreography of the two women’s faces next to gauze curtains, and Sven Nykvist’s famous “grey” shadowless lighting. This remarkable sequence epitomises Bergman’s very particular and seamless expression of form and content, producing the rich claustrophobic intimacy that would both influence many other directors and clearly leads into the modernist apogee of Persona. Composition, texture and performance come together to form a mysterious yet uncannily “present” vision of murky erotic and agonistic inter-subjectivity: the figures onscreen, whether suggestive of two halves in the abstract sense or as separate entities, share a complex history revealing such ambivalent interdependence that it is naïve to speak of a single identity out of context with the other.

Two further scenes add substantial words to the film’s image and sound-reliant composition and structure. Both feature amongst Bergman’s best ever writing, perfectly complimenting (never overwhelming) the aesthetic and performative layers, as bodies and faces are constantly repositioned in space. The dramatic high-point is a climactic argument between the two women after Ester finds the hotel room in which Anna is in the midst of post-coital torpor with the waiter from the street bar. This argument addresses more explicitly the central tension or implacable opposition between the two – broadly, whether one’s life and efforts should be seen as meaningful, morally and intellectually. (Anna accuses Ester of always going on about “how important everything is”, to which she replies: “but how else are we to live?”) Topping this is Ester’s bed-ridden monologue very late in the film. Though we might assume immanent demise (her condition is worsening, and Anna and Johan are about to catch the train back home without her), in this remarkable scene Ester self-consciously performs the figurative death of her grounding investments and raison d’etre. Linguistically and existentially alone in bed, with only the uncomprehending wrinkled porter by her side, she tries to write Johan a “letter” to take with him entitled “Words in the foreign language”, when her body erupts into seeming death spasms. As they momentarily subside, Ester appears to confront the brute truth of her embodied reality (and its inevitable fate). Sitting up in a hunched position and pulling back sweaty limp hair, she says with calm clarity and spite: “It’s all just erectile tissue and secretion”, while reaching disgustedly at her armpit and breast. Then, with exhausted hatred: “Semen smells nasty to me… I stank like a rotten fish when I was fertilized.” Collapsing back onto the bed and clasping the top of the old man’s head, staring death in the face, she more soberly describes her delusions in a truly Bergmanesque lament: “I wouldn’t accept my wretched role…. We try out attitudes, and find them all worthless. The forces are too strong. I mean the forces… the horrible forces,” before an even worse convulsion hits.

This sounds like both nihilistic and apocalyptic stuff: an appalled yet resigned facing of the end of “faith”, knowledge and meaning – the self-berating of the former believer for believing. And on one level, this is indeed Bergman’s most affecting human and filmic rendering of such a position (has any other filmmaker been more committed in mining this terrain?). However, there remains the matter of Johan’s encouraging of and reading Ester’s letter. Here the film complicates what might seem to some a blanket negation or willful adolescent destruction of the very culture from which it emerges. With the addition of this final movement, The Silence (along with Persona) stands for me as Bergman’s most direct yet also richest and most developed meditation on the challenge of nihilism. It achieves this through the film’s rendering of destructive negativity and open, future possibility as necessarily co-reliant. If there is a “hopeful” note in the film, it cannot be considered without acknowledging this intimate connection to the nihilistic element. The potentially progressive future afforded such violence as we see and think it through, but which is always “to-come”, works via the figuration of Johan’s gradual connection to Ester. While he has suffered through being ostracised by his mother’s sullenness and sexual pursuits, and has largely kept his distance from Ester for much of the time, in the light of his experiences Johan seems to exhibit some modest agency or moral choice entirely of his own making in the film’s final movement. (It is notable that prior to he and Anna leaving for lunch before their final departure from the city, he says to Ester: “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.”) While Ester’s beliefs, which have been handed down to her through a patriarchal culture, seem to be violently assaulted by her own body and the surrounding world, it is suggested that they are potentially passed on – and re-authored to unknowable future ends – by the final image of Johan reading her words on the train.

On the one hand this final image is a simple, modest vision of connection and continuity. But if we consider what “Words in the foreign language” really suggests, communication and meaning between generations, genders and subjects is not the whole story. Also invoked is the undermining of much bigger global divides built of apparently intransigent ideological, religious and cultural oppositions. While certainly none of the film’s confronting nihilism should be bracketed if its radical power is to remain, this final sense of openness and possibility – both modestly small yet also enormous – shouldn’t be brushed aside either. As Johan tries to read and understand Ester’s letter accompanied by the cacophonous din of the train, we leave the strange world of The Silence on a tenuous note indeed – one that allows for an open future while also insisting on the continual nature of devastation. Meanwhile Anna tries desperately, excessively, to douse her overheated anguish (she is as much a product and victim of the “horrible forces” as Ester) in the rain that streams in an open window, and through which we can clearly see the nightmarish moving images of a forbiddingly grey and quite real militarised world.

Endnotes

  1. Ironically for a filmmaker who would be increasingly criticised for being insufficiently political in the 1960s, The Silence actually became a political cause célèbre, causing substantial censorship debates wherever it was shown. While up until his garnering of artistic credentials in the mid-1950s (through winning multiple awards from 1955 onwards) many of Bergman’s films were shown in porno theatres in the USA, this time around even the more “liberal” European countries found the level of sexual frankness – both conceptual and visual – hard to bear. Certainly for a film of its time, the scenes of fucking in the cabaret and later in a hotel room are unusually “decadent” and “meaningless”, with a then-rare presence of bare breasts on screen and even later the suggestion of violence and non-consensus. But perhaps more unusual (even now) is a short scene in which Thulin unambiguously masturbates. Despite Bergman predicting the film would be very unpopular due to its challenging form, it was a big hit in Sweden due no doubt to such scandalous content. As Peter Cowie details, Swedish newspapers featured a running debate about the film for weeks (Cowie in The Ingmar Bergman Archives, ed. Paul Duncan and Bengt Wanselius, Taschen, 2008, p. 306). Interestingly, Bergman thought the film was rather discreet, and was appalled at its resulting scandal and popularity. (He and his wife received death threats and soiled lavatory paper in the mail.) Nevertheless, he also admitted that the scandal might have done some good – that the “hate and neuroses and fear” that the film inspired might have been cathartic when forced out into the open (Bergman quoted in Duncan and Wanselius, p. 307). Cowie recounts that the film is now seen as integral to the loosening and liberalising of Swedish censorship as it was passed without cuts, ushering in a post-censorship era (though the bureau let it be known that Bergman’s international reputation and his then directorship of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm effected the decision, proving that the film was the product of someone with “artistic intentions”). Outside Sweden, it was initially refused a visa for exhibition in France, the censor demanding parts of the sex scenes be cut. In West Germany debate over the film even occurred in the parliament, again making the film an instant, scandalous success. In the Soviet Union, it was decried as “fascist” and “exhibiting a hatred of mankind”. In Britain and the USA the film garnered excellent box office returns, though again – for such a challenging, modernist film – this was surely a result of the controversy. In Britain it was given an X rating with 35 seconds cut, while in the USA similar though smaller cuts were made (Cowie in Duncan and Wanselius, p. 306).
  2. Bergman quoted in Duncan and Wanselius, p. 304.
  3. Bergman quoted in Duncan and Wanselius, p. 304.
  4. Bergman says that this was only a trilogy after-the-fact. He later described these three films as a thematic “‘reduction’ – in the philosophical sense […]. Through a Glass Darkly – certainty achieved. Winter Light – ‘certainty unmasked’. The Silence – God’s silence – the negative impression.” Bergman in Peter Cowie, Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, Secker and Walberg, London, 1982, p. 197.
  5. Typically, Bergman downplays the importance of gender in the film, and claimed it was irrelevant when pressed by his Bergman on Bergman interviewers in the late 1960s about why he produced such a “negative” portrayal of femininity (be it in the excessively animalistic insolence of Anna or the dry intellectuality of Ester). Bergman argued that the two characters could have just as well been two men. (See Bergman quoted in Duncan and Wanselius, p. 308). I would argue that gender is far more important than Bergman suggests, and adds immeasurably to the film’s conceptual and performative layers. If it was two male characters the rich thematic and political material emerging from its post-patriarchal scenario would be in large part lost.

About The Author

Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle, and a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema.