Watch Your Step
“The Silence” (1963) – Ingmar Bergman, part of Northern Exposures: Social Change and Sexuality in Swedish Cinema at The Lincoln Film Center, New York City
If you’ve always been desperate to know how Ingmar Bergman would explore the theme of “silence,” you’ve really come to the right place. “The Silence” refuses to let its title down. You’re treated to a whole thesaurus’s worth of “silences”: miscommunication, lost in translation, passive aggression, isolation, omission, repression and desolation. It’s a literal uproar of “silence.”
The plot of the film is simple enough: Two sisters, the cerebral Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and the sensual Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) must stop with Anna’s young son Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) in a fictitious foreign country, where they stay in a very strange hotel.
Bergman’s films are often interpreted by their explorations of themes, which not only sounds incredibly irritating, but can be rendered meritless by subjectivity. For example, Woody Allen claims that “The Silence” opens up when you realize that the two women represent different aspects of the same person. Of course Woody Allen would think that. He LOVES that theme. See, e.g., the relentlessly annoying “Vicki Christina Barcelona” (2008). If anything, the (frankly) superficial differences between the two sisters is one aspect of the film that quickly becomes uninteresting.
Woody Allen’s opinions aside, “The Silence” is not as pretentious or impenetrable as one might expect. Bare bones as the plot might be, it is not an unfamiliar one. It is a classic set-up of the horror genre. Compare the elements in “The Silence” to those in the Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining” (1980): Two adults trapped in a large, almost empty hotel. A creepy little boy. A creepy old attendant. Wide corridors decorated in faded luxury. A room full of jubilant, performing dwarves. Okay, that part is different. But still, the point is, you watch both films thinking: Something terrible will happen here.
So horror films are set up, and while watching them, you know better than to become emotionally attached to any of the characters, because all signs point to the fact that terrible things will happen to them. You distance yourself. You come to the sometimes disconcerting realization that, in a way, you are watching the film for the purpose of seeing the characters abused, and it can even be dissatisfying if they are not.
“The Silence” is a masterfully executed horror film in every aspect of its construction: the cinematography, the sound, the pacing, the mise-en-scene. Only the horror in “The Silence” is of a different nature. Let’s call this genre the “sexual horror film.” This isn’t for horror films with explicit sex, or erotic films with scenes of horror. Rather, just as the tension and unease in horror films comes from waiting for – or watching – the violent content, in sexual horror films, the unease comes from waiting for – or watching – the sexual content.
Like its sister-genre, the sexual horror genre contains wide disparities in both quality and graphic content. See (and by that I mean avoid), e.g., “Spanking the Monkey” (1994) and “The Living and The Dead” (2006). One of the better such films is “Eyes Wide Shut,” (1999) another Kubrick film. I was inexplicably reminded of it while watching the opening credits of “The Silence,” until I recalled seeing a trailer for “Eyes Wide Shut” that ended with that exact same ticking clock noise. (This is not to imply that “Eyes Wide Shut” is derivative. At the very least, it stakes its own claim by eschewing the Oedipal theme, which is like the bread-and-butter of the sexual horror genre – its answer to the “Marauding High Schoolers Stalked By Psychopath,” if you will.)
So adept is Bergman in his construction of a sexual horror film, and so pervasive is our sense of discomfort while watching “The Silence,” that only afterwards does it occur that we might not have witnessed any horror at all – and furthermore – that there may not have been any actual threat of horror. As closely as the sexual relationships approach the realm of the disturbing, they never explicitly cross the line. The elements of the abnormal are all there, but they are ultimately ambiguous.
For example, an old man grabs a young boy in an empty hallway, and later tempts him with candy as he drinks from a flask. But then he doesn’t even seem to notice when the boy leaves. A woman intently watches a young couple make love in a dark theater, but then becomes afraid and bolts. A child listens outside a door as his mother makes love to a strange man, but after a few seconds, just walks away. A group of dwarves dress a small boy in drag, but then they just jump on the bed and sing songs. One sister asks another to recount her sexual experiences, and becomes both hurt and aroused. But is she jealous of her sister’s lovers, or just of her sister’s wanton lifestyle?
Chuck Palahniuk wrote, “What you don’t understand, you can make mean anything.” And this is the real achievement of Bergman’s use of minimalism, his sparse and ambiguous dialogue, the various themes of silence: the misunderstandings are not just between the characters, but between the audience and the film itself.