For a long while, Ingmar Bergman was one of those filmmakers I’d heard a lot of people praise, but didn’t know much about, aside from a single viewing of his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, on TV. I set about watching a number of his films, and in the main they weren’t quite what I expected. (I’m feeling ready for a re-watch, for a better take on him.) Only one clicked with me, 1963’s The Silence, a dream-like and unresolved narrative whose characters, world, and story seem haunted by something unnamed, and which in turn came to haunt me. It seemed more like a Robert Aickman short story, replete with surreal and menacing tensions, than anything else I’ve seen.
Two sisters, Ester and Anna, along with Anna’s young son Johan, are travelling by train through an unnamed European country. Ester is ill, coughing blood with a strangled, silent cough into a handkerchief, and they decide to stop so she can rest. The remainder of the film takes place in and around a seemingly massive, and mostly empty, hotel, in a country whose language none of the three main characters understand, and where the tensions between the sisters come to a head. Eventually, it’s decided Anna and Johan will continue, while Ester remains behind.
So, what are the tensions between the sisters? Ester, the older, is a literary translator, and we only need to witness her strangled-to-silence coughing to know how much she represses her body’s physicality. She’s both jealous and judgemental of the more sensuous Anna’s love life, including the love of her son. One interpretation (offered by Woody Allen in his foreword to Bergman’s autobiography) is that Ester is “the head”, the intellect, and Anna is “the body”, but this, I think, is to play into the sisters’ own trap. Ester is cut off from her body, but tortured by the absence of what it can provide. She longs to have physical contact — with her sister, her nephew — but can’t achieve it, and later confesses how repugnant she felt sleeping with men to be. “I wouldn’t accept my wretched role,” she says, of being a wife, a mother, a man’s lover. “But now it’s too damned lonely.” Perhaps the best illustration of Ester’s relationship with her body is when she turns on a radio while lying in bed. We only see her hand in the shot, and when lively music comes on, her hand dances on top of the radio, obviously enjoying it; then her head comes into shot, taking over, and the hand is forced to change the station to something more somber, more intellectual, and the dancing stops. She chain-smokes and chain-drinks, as though trying to stifle her body’s need for sensation. Whether her illness is an expression of her desire to be cut off from her body permanently, or is her body forcing her to pay attention to it — at several points, it literally cuts her off, leaving her choking for air, in what for me is the most frightening moment in any film I’ve ever seen — is one of the unresolved aspects of the film.
Anna, meanwhile, enjoys bodily pleasures — she likes bathing, she likes food, she likes wearing nice clothes, she likes caressing her son, herself, and men. Ester’s prurience and judgement makes her feel guilty for enjoying these things, but perhaps she’s forced into playing them up in front of her older sister, acting the role of the sybarite, as the two push each other to opposing extremes. Neither, then, is “the head” or “the body” — they’re too fully rounded as characters for that — but their unhealthy relationship forces them into these restrictive and self-damaging opposing roles.
For me, the film is not so much about the sisters’ conflict, as their dual influence on the boy, Johan, and his attempts to integrate these corresponding aspects of himself. He enjoys the physical contact with his mother, but is also intellectually curious, which is Ester’s territory. These warring sisters, though, provide no help in learning how to integrate the two, nor how to deal with the third element the film confronts him with: male sexuality.
Whenever Ester looks out of the hotel’s window, she sees an emaciated donkey pulling a cart, as though to remind herself of her own illness-wracked body. When Johan looks out of a window — either of the train or the hotel — he sees tanks. When he ventures into the hotel’s corridors, he takes his toy pistol. It all starts to seem a little Freudian, with him as the little boy, wielding his little pistol. And the world he enters, when he ventures out into the hotel’s corridors, is oddly fairy-tale-ish, as though it’s there to teach him how to deal with his little-pistol boyhood, before it becomes a dark and powerful tank-like masculinity.
What he finds are seven dwarfs (performers at a local theatre) and a giant (the hotel steward). When he shoots his cap-gun at the dwarfs they pretend to die, then invite him into the room and put him in a dress, as though to teach him to temper his manhood. One wears a chimpanzee mask and jumps up and down on a bed comically, perhaps asking him how much of an animal he wants to be. The boy wanders off and comes across the kindly giant of a hotel steward, who also puts on a comical performance, pretending to teach a sausage a lesson before biting its head off, as though to remind the boy how a man should keep his sexual urges in check. Elsewhere, the boy looks at a massive painting of the centaur Nessus taking Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, on his back — a scene which will lead to an attempted seduction or rape, and ultimately to Heracles’s own death. Johan is clearly fascinated by the painting, but when Ester mentions horses when talking to him of what’s going to happen in the coming summer, Johan says he’s scared of them. It’s perhaps the animal part of himself he’s talking about.
Ester suggests he read to her. The book we’ve seen him reading is Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, whose Byronic hero is single-mindedly intent on seducing women (is this really a suitable book for a boy of his age?). Johan at this moment looks outside and sees a tank in the street, as though to remind himself of the fear of his own sexual role, and instead of reading to his aunt, retreats further into childhood by putting on a Punch & Judy show. Punch kills Judy, then gets scared and (as Johan explains) starts talking in a funny language. Is the Punch & Judy show enacting what he’s starting to feel is the role of a man, culturally-implied by Nessus and Lermontov, to abuse women? Or perhaps it’s broader than that, and the tank made him think of death, and Judy’s death reminded him of Ester’s illness, and it’s losing her he’s afraid of.
All of this is only lightly suggested, and none of it’s fully resolved. So much of the film remains dream-like, even after several close viewings. And perhaps that’s because The Silence, ultimately, has its origin in a dream, as Ingmar Bergman says in his autobiography:
“I am in an enormous, foreign city. I am on my way toward the forbidden part of town. It is not even some dubious area of ill repute with its steaming flesh pots, but something much worse. There the laws of reality and the rules of society cease to exist. Anything can happen and everything does. I dreamed this dream over and over again.”
The film, at one point, was to be titled “Timoka”, the name of the city the sisters stop in; at another time, it was to be “The Silence of God”. I think a lot of the film’s power comes from the unspecific nature of the title. Calling it “Timoka” might have made it sound like a political allegory (and some contemporary reviewers did read it as an allegory of the Cold War). Calling it “The Silence of God” would have made it sound as though the whole mess could be, and ought to be, blamed on a creator. (Ester does at one point, in the midst of her illness’ worst paroxysms, beg “Dear God, please let me die at home”, but we never learn if that prayer is answered or not.) Calling it simply The Silence leaves it open to so many interpretations that it takes on a generalised existential quality: silence as the human condition. There’s the silence of the unspoken tensions between the sisters, and the silence (or inability to communicate) between people generally. Contrasted with this, there’s a positive silence, in the way some things can be communicated without words: Johan’s playing with the dwarfs and the hotel steward, Anna’s seduction of a café waiter (to whom she says “How nice that we don’t understand each other”), the universality of music (it’s the only thing Ester says that the hotel steward immediately understands, along with “Johann Sebastian Bach”, whose music even Anna says sounds nice, in a rare moment of accord). There is, of course, also the silence of death, and the silence of Ester’s distressingly breathless choking, her soundless gasping for air. There’s the silence of Ester’s loneliness, too (“All this talk… There’s no need to discuss loneliness…”). At several points in the film — which doesn’t have a musical score — a fast ticking plays over the soundtrack, like a sort of intensified silence. The ticking of mortality? It comes to each of the major characters, though at one point might be mistaken for the sound of the hotel steward’s fob watch. What does it all mean?
“What does it all mean?” is still my attitude to The Silence. It’s a film with a perhaps bottomless well of meanings. As Robin Wood has written in his book on Bergman:
“One watches the film almost emotionlessly, as if paralyzed, and comes out feeling that one has experienced very little. Then hours—or even days—later, one comes to realize how deep and disturbing the experience has been…”
Bergman influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. Johan wandering the corridors of this unnamed hotel in single-point perspective reminds me of Danny in Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel; the bizarrely-dressed dwarf troop in league with a young boy can’t help reminding me of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits; and there’s more than a touch of David Lynch about the whole thing. (Plus, Bergman’s probably singlehandedly responsible for all of Woody Allen’s non-funny films. The intentionally non-funny ones, anyway.)
The Silence seems to me like a Symbolist work of art, something like Munch’s The Scream, perhaps, with which it shares an archetypal purity and ambiguity. Munch’s central figure with the wailing mouth — is it screaming, or hearing a scream, or screaming to drown out a scream, or mouthing a scream it can’t produce but can hear? And what of The Silence — the silence before a scream, the silence after one, the silence in longing for one? To all this, perhaps the best answer is — …