Ingmar Bergman: The Silence

In my recent post on Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (here), I mentioned that Winter Light is one of my favorite films of all time. Well, now we come to my least favorite Bergman film — at least at this point in my life and viewing — The Silence (1963), the final film in what is sometimes called The Faith Trilogy and sometimes The Silence of God Trilogy. Premiering the same year (just over seven months later) as Winter Light, this film is a striking change in form and, in my opinion, content. Where the first two films in the set are quiet narratives — I use that term loosely — dealing with relatively clear psychological and spiritual concerns, The Silence becomes even quieter, focusing on the relationship between two sisters and a young boy within a world that feels vast yet appears to be closing in on itself. What these characters are going through is not nearly so clear, even to themselves, and we wander around behind them as they try to deal with sickness, war, death, isolation. These are themes Bergman will continue to address in the late-1960s, and, as masterful as The Silence is, for me it is inferior to what has come before and what is coming after, though it does mark the transition. The Silence is still a fascinating film from a director who was exploring his own concerns without trying to preach to us.

The Silence

At the end of my post on Winter Light I mentioned that the idea of “carrying on” (and whether to) in what can be seen as a senseless world is very much the point. In some ways, I think in The Silence Bergman is exploring that theme further. Here we have a silent, torn-up world. We first see it from a train.

On that train, we meet our three central characters: the two sisters, Ester (played by Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and Anna’s ten-year-old son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). The atmosphere is stifling. The train hum is barely audible and it becomes uncomfortable. We feel that the train compartment is hot and that the air is thick and heavy. They are on a journey (those looking to interpret the film can find a rich field of symbolism — though in a way I’m with Susan Sontag when she said, in effect, that there’s enough going on on the screen to respond to). Johan goes to the window and looks out upon the world, and that humming train noise just seems to emphasize that we are in some kind of uncomfortable vessel with the world going on outside:

The Silence 1

It’s some kind of war zone, or people are preparing for war, or brutality is blatantly presented (by the way, when Sontag decried attempts to “interpret” this film, she was talking about a tank that enters an alley-way; many said it was a phallic symbol; Sontag said it was a tank and worth responding to in its own right).

The train finally stops in the town of Timoka, and the three characters go into a grand — yet almost entirely empty — hotel. We get to know the space and art in the hotel through the eyes of the wandering Johan. But still, outside the windows, just below the windows, in fact, so close you’d swear they were in the same room, are thousands of people, amidst tanks and, creepily, this cart pulled by a starving horse:

The Silence 5

This starving horse is a clear reference to the starving horse in The Phantom Carriage (1921) (directed by the great Victor Sjöström, who starred in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (my thoughts here)):

The Phantom Carriage Horse

In The Phantom Carriage, that horse is pulling Death’s cart as Death sweeps around the country picking up the souls of the dead. For those looking, there is nothing outside but destruction and death, and yet the people carry on.

Inside the hotel, there is a different battle going on between the two sisters. Ester is a translator, an intellectual, and she’s dying. She doesn’t like to be left alone, yet Anna, either because she’s sick of it or because she simply doesn’t think about it enough to care, doesn’t want to be the crutch. Anna is the opposite of Ester. Where Ester is intellectual and essentially hopeless as she considers the future, Anna is physical and focused on the present. She takes care of her body throughout the film, and Bergman uses this to show what for some might be an uncomfortable degree of physical intimacy between mother and child:

The Silence 2

In contrast, Ester’s body is falling apart. She is often shown in bright, unflattering light, and she destroys her body by drinking and smoking constantly.

The Silence 3

Both sisters are vying for Johan’s attention and affection.

Many interpret the two sisters as physically separate representations of two halves of the same person. This avenue certainly goes takes us to some interesting insights, but to me they are not as interesting as ones we may get when we go down the same avenue in Persona. For me, it works just as well to look at the two women as two ways of approaching a decadent world, each vying for the conviction of the impressionable young boy. The state of the world outside urging Ester to connect with the boy, while it is Ester’s own urgency that makes Anna more protective of her son.

Both are able to gain some ground. Obviously, Johan is faithful to his mother, yet Ester finds a way to communicate with him by writing down some of her own thoughts on translation.

But for the most part Johan just wanders, lost. No one can help him. He doesn’t know the language.

The Silence 4

Meanwhile, the battle between the sisters rages on as Anna attempts to increase the distance between her and her sister. Anna complains that for Ester “[e]verything has to be desperately important and meaningful.”

We know who’s going to win in the end.

The Silence 6

So how does all of this relate to the prior films in the trilogy and to Bergman’s exploration of faith and god? I already mentioned the idea of “carrying on” in the world — how does one approach that chaotic mess outside the window (and in one’s own heart)? Also, I think it’s fruitful to explore this quiet world where these two women are the only forces in Johan’s life. If the world is silent, if god does not exist and does not direct the affairs of mankind, then perhaps it doesn’t really matter who wins out. In fact, perhaps it’s better that it is Anna. Ester’s interest in the metaphysical and in art are not doing her any bit of good.

But while I think this film fits with the other two, I also think its inclusion in a “trilogy” forces us to look at it from a funky angle that probably was never intended. Bergman didn’t intend for these films to form a trilogy. It was only in retrospect that he called it one, and — if my memory of unknown sources serves me correctly — he later regretted the appellation. Indeed, The Silence seems much more related to Bergman’s other films of the late 1960s than to the other films in the trilogy.

Still, I probably don’t do it any favors by comparing (in my head — not here, not yet) The Silence to these later films like Persona and Shame. Still, I feel those two films are much richer as they explore psychology and war.

Speaking of those later films, one reason I’m posting this review so soon after my review of Winter Light is because later this month The Criterion Collection is releasing a new transfer of Persona, one of my favorites that I haven’t seen in some time. I plan to revisit that film and review it and the accompanying package close to its release date. Bring on Persona!

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