“The Silence” - Ingmar Bergman (1963)

The Silence was Ingmar Bergman’s third film in a sequence of small-scale dramas that have been referred to as his “Trilogy of Faith” and which included the earlier Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963). In each of these films, the action involves only a few characters and takes place over a period of no more than twenty-four hours. However, despite the "trilogy" designation, the three film narratives are unconnected, and by the time we get to The Silence, even the issue of faith seems to have disappeared from view.  Perhaps what really connects the three films is the frustrated concern about the absence of sincere human communication in the modern age.

The story of The Silence concerns the contrasting perspectives and personalities of two sisters who are returning home via the train and stop off for a day in a foreign city somewhere in Eastern Europe.  When I say “story” in this instance, I use the term loosely, because, just as in Winter Light, what we really have on view is just a collection of disparate episodes during a period of about one day that shed light on the inner makeup of the principal characters. Indeed, in The Silence very little happens and very little is communicated – silence mostly prevails – so it is intriguing that Bergman was able to craft a film that manages to sustain the viewer’s interest.  (In fact The Silence was one of Bergman’s biggest commercial successes, although that box-office popularity was probably mostly due to some of the film’s sexual content.)

The cast comprises five principal characters, two of whom only speak the language of the unknown foreign country and thus have no comprehensible verbal communication in the film:

  • Ester (Ingrid Thulin), who is suffering from some unspecified and apparently terminal illness.
  • Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), Ester’s young sister and mother of Johan.
  • Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom), the ten-year-old son of Anna.
  • The Waiter (Birger Malmsten), whom Anna meets and with whom she has sex.
  • The Hotel Porter (Håkan Jahnberg), an elderly bellhop who works in the hotel where Ester, Anna, and Johan stay for a night.

The film opens with Ester, Anna, and Johan shown in a railway car cabin.  The opening shot establishes the characteristic mise en scene of the film – it maintains a medium closeup (or sometimes full closeup) framing for more than two minutes by closely tracking various characters of interest as they move about. The succeeding shot is similar and also more than two minutes in duration.  The effect is one of claustrophobic confinement and self concern.  It is immediately clear that Ester is very ill, and they decide to make a stop off in the next city, Timoka, where they book a two-room suite at an old hotel.

Ester takes to her hotel room bed, where she is shown solitarily writing, smoking, and drinking vodka in another two-minute shot.  Meanwhile Anna decides to take a nap in her own bed with her son Johan.  Soon the contrasting natures of the two sisters are evident.  Ester is an intellectual and lives the life of the mind.  Anna is sensually self-indulgent and mostly concerned with her own bodily needs. Indeed her interactions with Johan throughout the film are quite physical – she often kisses him sensually, has him scrub her back when she takes a bath, and sleeps naked with him in the bed. 

Anna then dresses up and decides to go out into the town. At a local bar, she blithely allows the waiter to make a pass at her.  Later while sitting in the balcony watching a stage performance, she is abhorrently fascinated at the sight of a couple in the next booth brazenly making love. 

When Anna returns to the hotel suite, Ester asks about Anna’s soiled dress, and it becomes increasingly clear that there is open hostility between the two sisters. Anna is irritated by Ester’s queries and chafes at reporting what she does to her sister.  She toys with the truth, but eventually confesses that she had sex with the waiter she had just met.  Ester wishes to make peace and says that she only has love for her sister; she then caresses Anna so affectionately that it is suggestive of something more than just sisterly warmth.  But Anna spurns these entreaties for affection and goes out of the hotel again.

Meanwhile Johan has been wandering alone around the hotel corridors. He runs into a performing troupe of Spanish dwarfs who are staying in another suite, and although there is no verbal communication possible, they playfully communicate with him via gestures. 

Later back in the hotel suite, Johan reports to Ester that he has just seen Anna enter another hotel room with a strange man.  When Ester goes out and finds the room, Anna, instead of being shamefaced in front of her sister, puts on a shamelessly open display of sexual fondling with the waiter in order to torture Ester.  Ester leaves, and Anna proceeds to have animalistic sex with her all-but mute lover.

The next morning Anna coldly prepares to depart with Johan for home, while Ester is too sick to travel and will remain in Timoka for a few more days.  We are given to believe that Ester is near death and might not make it home alive. Before Anna and Johan leave, Ester hands Johan a “letter” and urges him to read it.  In the final scene on the departing train, Johan is seen reading the letter, which turns out to be some vocabulary words in the foreign language used in Timoka.

There is little narrative movement in The Silence, at least in connection with the external events depicted, and little seems to be resolved.  In some sense the narrative “journey” in the story, similar to the other films in Bergman’s trilogy, is one undertaken by the viewer in an effort to understand the psychological profiles represented by the characters. 
  • Ester represents a way of being based on high principles and the love of beauty. 
  • Anna, on the other hand, is instinctive and willful; she resists communications from Ester that arouse guilt feelings. 
  • Johan is innocent and open to being shaped by these psychological tendencies.

One might argue that to a certain extent it all seems excessively symbolic and schematic. The images of miliary tanks occasionally seen along the railway and in the city streets suggest the breakdown of civilized human relationships and a relentless movement towards violence. And what is the meaning and significance of the dwarf troupe? Their lives seem alienated, remote, and grounded in trivial role-playing – an unattractive portrayal of the social other.  And yet these diminished figures seem orderly and somehow innocent, too.  As for the Porter, he seems kind, but also clinical, as if he is a hospital orderly tending to a vast asylum of inmates.

One perhaps might liken the psychological types depicted here to those of other psychic dichotomies, such as Nietzsche’s separation of the Dionysian (Anna) and the Apollinian (Ester),  Herman Hesse’s bifurcated characters in his novel, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), or even Sigmund Freud’s ego-superego-id structural modal of the human psyche. 

But Bergman’s The Silence has a mysterious expressionistic power that goes somewhat beyond these schemata. Sven Nyquist’s obsessively tracking camera, the internal sound of a ticking clock  (suggesting that time is running out?), and the many shots of characters shown via their reflection in a mirror all contribute to an atmosphere of threatening enclosure and isolation.  In addition the characterization of the psychic tendencies in the figures of two beautiful women, here superbly portrayed by Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, takes the thematic elements beyond mere abstractions. Anna and Ester are not simply schematized conceptions, but are instead embodied, sensual beings. 
  • Anna has animalistic sex with the waiter, but she reflects on these things, too.  She sobs over her feelings of guilt towards her sister. But she also rails at her sister, “you always harp on principles!”  Then she hatefully asks Ester why she continues to live and doesn’t just get her dying over and done with.
  • Ester, the writer who seeks refined beauty and principles, still feels sexual urges, too.  There is another one of those long medium-closeup shots in the film showing Ester in her bed satisfying her sexual urges to a climax. Yet she only complains about this side of things: “erectile tissue, . . . it’s all a matter of erections and secretions!”  She goes on: 
    “I didn’t want to accept my wretched role. But now it’s too lonely. We try out attitudes and find them all worthless. The forces are too strong.”
  • Johan is innocent and unformed, but he certainly does not represent the ego portion of Freud’s triad. He is not a bad boy, but he could become corrupted by his animal urges. He points his toy gun at people in the hotel, pretending to shoot them. On other occasions he steals and hides some of the hotel porter’s treasured personal photos and later urinates on the wall in the hotel corridor.
So the ending of the film showing Johan reading Ester’s letter and learning some foreign words suggests that his soul will not be lost.  He seems to be tentatively headed down the path, like that followed by his sister Ester, of trying to make contact with others in order to find something meaningful in this chaotic and uncertain world.

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