Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.
One of them is angry and the other sad, one is sensual and the other pragmatic, one emotional and the other logical - and neither knows how to communicate with the other. There's a sadness in this that neither one of them is willing to admit. The floodgates won't open, they'll never be angry or sad with each other again, there's just them, the child accompanying them, and the endless silence that can't be addressed by anyone and since this seems to be a world without God, there's no hope that it will be.
The Silence serves as the bookend piece to Bergman's trilogy of films about the silence of God, and a gateway into his more experimental period of the 60's. As a tale, it's simply told. Two sisters, Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), are travelling home with Anna's son Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). Ester is very sick, frequently coughing up blood and staying in bed to read her books and do some translating. Anna is, for lack of a better expression, on the prowl. She is Johan's mother, but with father out of the picture (it's never revealed why) Anna roams the town putting out every sign that she is looking for sex. Johan, in the meantime, simply watches and wanders around the hotel that the three of them stay in.
And that, dear readers, is the extent of the plot to which I can even begin to reasonably relate to you all. The Silence is easily the most challenging film of Bergman's "faith trilogy" and is not so easily analyzed. Every time I've watched it I've been confused, frightened, curious and more than a bit aroused. It lacks the straightforward emotional punch of Winter Light, and the slightly warmer family dynamic of Through A Glass Darkly. To be honest, I never thought I'd see the day where I would call Through A Glass warmer than anything else, but here we are.
It's better to approach this film from the emotional angle that is appears Bergman intended. This film is lumped into other "modernist" films like Last Year At Marienbad, but possesses a much stronger emotional core to the film. Since this film seems structured more on the emotions that it invokes, rather than the plot that it portrays, it's best to look at The Silence from the perspective of those emotions. Now, emotions are tricky little buggers and mine are more susceptible to the tricks of film than most, but that's partly why the mysterious allure of this film continues to drag me back.
First there is the confusion and curiosity. The hotel that the family stays in is slightly ominous, yet inviting. The corridors are long and filled with darkness, and you never know what will be around the next corner. Worse still is the inability of anyone to communicate with one another. We meet several groups of people, the central family, a friendly elderly porter, and some circus dwarves - but all of them speak a different language. The disorientation is felt by the characters and extended to us because of this. It's not so much that the languages are different, but the people speaking them seem to be coming from an alien land that has no connection to what we are used to.
Little Johan tries to pierce this confusion. He wanders the corridors, plays with the dwarfs, and is slightly scared of the elderly porter. But he lacks the tools to understand what he is experiencing. By proxy, this means that he is not exactly scared of it. His confusion is rooted in his youth, not the grotesquery of the surroundings, and he serves as an innocent and brave guide through this building.
The anxiety and terror that the film provokes is largely due to the visuals that Nykvist and Bergman generated for the film. From the opening frame, it is clear that this family is not in a place that normally accepts, or welcomes, visitors. There are tanks that slowly race by the window of the train, and once in the hotel Bergman allows Nykvist's camera to follow Johan and glide around the corridors of the hotel. Bergman puts us in an agitated dream state, where we are not fully in control of where the visuals might take us and where certain hints about the nature of the nightmare are provided but not fully explained - much like the paganistic painting of a man and a woman that stares down at Johan.
Adding to the terror, if not the confusion, is Bergman's use of the sound track on this film. This film, amongst all of Bergman's others, depends on it's context that this is a world without God. So he allows us to feel that silence, the moments where the only sound is the rustling of the train tracks, or the clank of glasses in a cafe. There is music, yes, but played by Ester in an attempt to alleviate her own suffering. If the visuals reinforce that this is a nightmare, then the sounds reinforce that this is a nightmare we endure alone. We cannot even hear our own breathing at times because we are so desperate to listen out for the sounds of others to prove that we are not alone.
The performances add to the terror, and also give the film an eroticized charge that is at times troubling and others inticing. The two sisters, separated from each other by some barely spoken of infidelity in the past, are two halves of a whole. Ester is the more logical/knowledgeable of the two, but cannot connect with people on the raw emotional and physical level of her sister Anna. Both Thulin and Lindbloom are stellar in these roles, connecting with the coldness or painful warmth of their respective identities, but Thulin really nails the desperation of her character. From her painful attempts at masturbation, to the awkward but touching way she attempts to communicate with the porter, Thulin scarily portrays the end of a woman who knows that she will die in this hotel.
Then there's the sexual tension in the film. It caused quite a scandal when it was first released and it's easy to understand why in the context of the story. While the sex scenes are not overly graphic, they suggest a level of eroticism that is troubling or uncontrollable depending on the moment, and it all hinges on Johan and Anna. Johan scrubs his mother's back in a scene that is uncomfortably sensual, after which he lays down with his naked mother to take a nap. Shortly afterward, she goes into a theater where a couple is having passionate sex whilst unaware, or uncaring that she is there. Then there are Anna's own sexual encounters, tinged with passion, anger and sadness; unable or unwilling to settle on just one emotion.
Much like the other facets of the film, how we are supposed to conduct ourselves sexually is not greeted with a single answer. The Silence is not going to provide any easy answers to anything. In the end, Anna takes Johan and leaves Ester to most likely die along in the hotel. They needed to go, but was it right to leave? Bergman cannot communicate that answer to us, as the occupants of the hotel cannot meaningfully communicate to each other, even if they share the same language. The emotions are there, but tangled in even more confusion and lust. In the end, those emotions and sensual pleasures may be all that we have, even if we cannot really connect to one another. A sad conclusion, but one that The Silence explores to confounding and inticing ends.
Next week I'll be taking the plunge into the first film of Bergman's full on experimental phase, the perpetually confounding Persona. See you then!