The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
I thought I ought to dip back into classic Bergman to wipe the memory of that castastrophic “comedy” from my brain, and I cannot quite believe that these two films were made back-to-back. The Silence is a dark film that packs a punch, that sees people at their worst and meets them with a fixed, unflinching stare. Bergman at his most mysterious and troubling.
It has very little dialogue, but lots of people-watching. He lets his brilliant cast improvise their way around the hotel, and captures the magic. The lack of words gave it an oddly novelistic feel, like watching the equivalent of an interior monologue. The focus is on the little things you see, gestures and glances. The abstract settings -we don’t know where they are or why, the locals speak a Balkanish language that Bergman invented- cut you off from your moorings and cause you to share the characters’ feelings of being utterly lost.
Sven Nykvist, his usual cinematographer, ensures it has that recognisable Bergman look. Across the course of the day plentiful crisp, white light gradually gives way to darkness and heavy shadows. Most of the action happens in a hotel that looks like it was once grandiloquent (wide Marienbad corrdiors with chandeliers) but is rather run-down now. You see just enough of the outside world (Anna’s excursion, Ester’s glances out the window at rolling tanks and a starving, ancient pack-horse carrying a cart sky-high with furniture) to sense that beyond the gloomy hotel it only gets scarier still.
They say this film is the third part of Bergman’s “silence of God” trilogy, but these people have forgotten the God question and I felt the title simply meant the emptiness of human existence. Rooms are jail cells of our own construction, we can’t communicate with other people or trust them, the harder we try to more damage we end up inflicting, the certainty of death looms over every move; is this all there is?
The acting is very good indeed, in particular Ingrid Thulin as Ester, a gravely ill translator. Her characters always have an intimidating quality. When she looks at the people around her, contempt vyes with pity for these people who understand so little. But she’s in a dark, dark place where no-one would ever wish to be. The most memorable performance I’d seen from her hitherto was Cries & Whispers, where she shoves a broken bottle up her vagina; you get the general idea. If you met this woman at a party, one look into her eyes and a voice inside you would whisper, “Keep well away”. Gunnel Lindblom is also strong as her sultry sister Anna, and the young boy Jorgen Lindstrom brings a curious, Pinnochio-like features to Anna’s son Johan.
It starts in a train carriage, where the three sit silently with no exposition. Anna’s forehead glistens with sweat and she fans herself with anything to hand. Ester sits impassive in a suit, until she collapses into a silent coughing fit. The yin/yang of life and death, sensuality and formality divides the two sisters from the very start.
Johan is sent into the corridor where he sees a beautiful shot of the sun rising from behind hills. He’s transfixed by the view, soon replaced by rows and rows of tanks. The train arrives at its destination and the noise of traffic jams and newspaper vendors interrupt the revery.
We rejoin the family in a hotel room. Ester is in bed, Anna complaining about the heat. She goes to the bathroom, leaving the door open (a lot of things are glimpsed through doorways in this film). She moves off-camera in her dressing gown, then is visible again as she walks naked towards the bath. Johan is called in to scrub her back. He can’t contain his Oedipal thrill and presses his face against her neck. She lets him hold it there for a few seconds, then sends him out.
Ester smokes, drinks, coughs, tries the radio, makes copious notes in a thick book. When the elderly porter, with huge glasses and a toothy grin, is summoned, he does not respond to French, English or German. She hands him the empty bottle of spirits; a language everyone speaks. The camera tilts back behind her, almost horizontal, as she puts her hands inside her pyjamas and idly masturbates. Her teeth are bared, then she rolls over to sleep. The camera pulls away respectfully.
As on the train, Johan has lots of time to himself and is often banished to the corridors. He wanders, using a child’s imagination to entertain himself; he hides from workmen, gazes at a Rubens painting of a centaur apprehending a nymph, and ‘shoots’ people with his toy gun. Johan walks in on six dwarves and ‘shoots’ them. They welcome and indulge him, dressing him up in their circus costumes. When the boss dwarf comes back, he is politely escorted out as the terrified dwarves rush to clear away the beer bottles.
Anna goes out and has a milkshake in a café, as people browse newspapers in this strange language of theirs. The waiter is surprised to be paid with a banknote that’s almost A4; these tourists are a funny lot. He puts her change onto the table, pushes one coin onto the floor, then kneels to retrieve it and have a very good look at her legs. There’s something slightly monstrous about the absence of any subtlety. At the hotel, Ester and Johan eat. Johan flinches away from her touch. “Only mummy can touch you, isn’t that right?”
From the back row of a cabaret club, Anna watches the dwarves perform acrobatics. To her right, a couple are heavy petting. Her dress unbuttoned, the woman sits astride the man and both lean back horizontally, their faces far apart. Again it looks a little grotesque, reminds us of Iago and the “beast with two backs”. Anna turns to walk the crowded city streets; everyone she passes is male, every fifth person seems to be a maimed soldier. She is heading to the café to see if that waiter is still there.
As Anna has her waiter, Ester has her porter. He calls the wandering Johan in from the corridor as he eats. He swigs from a hip flask and, with great emotion, shows the boy photos of a funeral. This maudlin chap is probably the only one who could put up with Thulin, tossing and turning and falling out of bed and always talking about her imminent death. Anna returns and runs another bath, this time closing the door on Ester; “To think I was ever afraid of you”. Ester follows, scrutinises Anna’s discarded dress, and extracts a confession- Anna bluntly tells her that she picked up a waiter and they fucked in a church. Under her reserve, Thulin exudes a mixture of deeply hurt/rather titillated. They all sit around and listen to Bach; the delighted porter is a big fan.
Later Anna meets her man in the corridor and Johan watches as they disappear into a room together. He stands with his ear to the door. As Anna sprawls naked on the bed and, smirking, slowly removes her bangles, the camera gives a POV of the man looming over her. Cut to a birds eye view of Johan, exiled to the corridors that look far too big for him. Ester is in bed, snoring. Her open hand makes a fist. The water jug and glass at her bedside start to rattle; outside, tanks are rolling through a medieval square.
Anna rests her head on the waiter’s chest, his sholders covered in bloody scratches. “How nice that we don’t understand each other”, she murmurs as she kisses his wounds. They hear Ester, crying at the door; Anna lets her in and returns to kissing the man. Averting her eyes, Ester shuffles to the foot of the bed and asks what she’s done to deserve this.
Anna responds with a full airing of greivances. You’re egocentric, you think everything so important. You talk of love but you’re full of hate. Why don’t you kill yourself? This scene is played out with Ester kneeling in the left of the frame, Anna kneeling above her and holding onto the bedhead bars that separate them. To the far right, the uncomprehending man sits back and looks on, like the furthest satellite to this suffering.
When Ester walks out Anna is hysterical, pushing her lover aside and smashing a light. She clings to the bars at the foot of the bed and sobs solidly; behind the man paws at her, kisses her, enters her. Sensuality has gone from an expression of will and positivity, to a transaction as empty and unsavoury as any other between two people.
Next morning, Ester is back in bed and Anna announces that she and Johan are leaving. The hapless porter sits with Ester as she rants about her aversion to semen. “But in the end, the forces are too strong. The horrible forces.” We momentarily wonder if she’s going to drag the porter into bed, but Bergman shows us mercy for once. Instead Ester recalls her father, who was “so big and heavy”, until her monologue gives way to manic coughing, thrashing wildly about on the bed, all gasps and gurgles.
When she finally lies back the camera is at the bedhead and we are reminded of her masturbation scene. There is so much white light being flooded onto her face that she looks like a photo negative. She pulls the bedsheet over her face.
Just as we think it’s ended, a tentatively positive epilogue; Johan comes back to say goodbye and she gives him a letter- a short glossary of words from the local language. He reads it on the train back; Anna wants a look but isn’t much interested. The film ends with a close-up of Johan’s face- he’s scrutinising the letter, as if he might find therein some clue about what has become of the women and what might become of him. Two films later, Bergman would take these themes and make something even more extraordinary with Persona; but on its own terms this film is magical.