DVD Review Of The Silence

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/8/07


  The last film of Ingmar Bergman’s Spider Trilogy, The Silence (Tystnaden), is not as good as the film which directly preceded it, Winter Light, but is closer to it, in quality, than the trilogy’s comparatively weak first film, Through A Glass Darkly. This is because the weak link in Bergman’s filmic repertoire is his ability to handle sexuality. Through A Glass Darkly has the most of it, Winter Light is nearly void of it, and The Silence has a bit of it, although not nearly as much as the lurid American trailer for the film would suggest. That trailer, available on the DVD, would have one believe that the two thirtysomething sisters in the film, Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) were engaging in explicit lesbian sex, of the variety one might see in a 1990s porno film.

  This is not so, and this film, in essence, is substantially different- both in tone and in substance- from the two other films, which lends credence to Bergman’s claims that these films never formed a formal trilogy because not only is the spider God imagery almost absent from this film, but almost all references to religion are gone, as well. It seems that there has been a fatuous critical shoehorning of this film to make it part of a de facto trilogy, but one simply cannot support that claim if all three films are viewed in a row. In reality, this film can be seen as the first half of a duplex of films that ends with Persona, and the Spider Trilogy is really a Spider Duplex, too. It’s not really about ‘the absence of God’, as some critics claim, but rather an almost The Twilight Zone-like film dealing with the absurdities and cruelties of life, regardless of a God or not.

  The film, with very little dialogue, starts out with the two sisters, and Anna’s young son Johan (Jörgen Lindström, who would, a few years later portray the infamous Ugly Boy whose appearance brackets Bergman’s film Persona) on a train in a foreign unnamed country. They do not understand the language, but presumably are there because Ester is a book translator with a job. As the train speeds on Johan spies a sunrise, and what seems to be all sorts of military preparations, as if the country is headed for war. Ester’s illness, first realized with a bloody nose, forces them to take refuge at a hotel in an unnamed city which we later find out may or may not be named Kimoka or Timoka. The sisters spend most of the film bickering, and Ester does seem to have a crush on her sister, who also seems to delight in titillating Johan with her nude voluptitude- specifically her large and beautiful naked breasts. Yet, Ester is slowly withering away from an illness, and her chain smoking and drinking. Anna, meanwhile, neglects Johan, spending most of her time on a sexual manhunt. The most interesting character in the film is Johan, who runs about the huge hotel’s empty corridors, which prefigure those of the hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. He shoots his toy gun at a hotel repairman, hotel waiter (Håkan Jahnberg), and a troupe of dwarves who are in town for a cabaret. He looks at the paintings on the wall, strikes a pose, in shadow, that is reminiscent of Max Schreck in Nosferatu, and even seems to urinate at one point in the film, right in the middle of the hotel’s corridor. Anna sees the dwarves’ show, and sees a man and woman fucking in the balcony. This drives her to her own anonymous sexual escapades.

  Johan seems to be the only person who can connect with the dwarves, who are closer to his size, and in a bizarre scene, they dress him up in a woman’s dress, and bounce upon a bed, until their boss ends the party. He also is the only one of the three main characters who seems to realize that the country is in some sort of political flux, for a tank is seen by him, late at night, outside the hotel, in a square. His childish innocence seems to be his saving grace, and augurs the film’s ultimately hopeful message that all is not lost despite the neuroses of his mother and aunt. But, the sisters’ erratic and sadomasochistic relationship takes dramatic centerstage. Ester intrudes on Anna and her lover, after Anna had previously told sexually contrived tales of her tryst to Ester, and Anna vents her hatred of Ester, whoin turn condescends to her insecure sister.

  Eventually, Anna decides to leave the ill Ester behind, ostensibly to die, as she and Johan take the train back to their native country. Ester gives her nephew a sheet with some of the words she’s translated from this country’s language. Anna wants to see what it is Johan has, but dismisses it at being merely a ‘nice’ thing her sister did. But, to Johan it is more, it is something he values, much in the same way that Minus, the son from Through A Glass Darkly, values his father’s offhanded attention at that film’s end. The word that sticks with him is hadjek, or soul, one of the few religious references within the whole film.

  The DVD, other than having the lurid American trailer, has a ten minute film essay on the film from Bergman devotee Peter Cowie, and thankfully, like the other films in The Criterion Collection’s DVD boxed set of the Spider Trilogy, it has optional English language dubbing, which is so far superior to having to read white subtitle’s on a black and white film. Of course, there are English subtitles for those masochists who hate dubbing. The whole set, however, does come with a fourth DVD that consists of a Swedish television program called Ingmar Bergman Makes A Movie, which chronicled the vicissitudes Bergman weathered while filming Winter Light.

  Ingrid Thulin, as Ester, is very good as the repressed sister, and Gunnel Lindblom radiates an almost sleazy sex appeal as the horny Anna- which is perhaps the most oft-used name for a Bergman female character, who wishes her sister dead. Seeing the film now, however, it seems laughable to think that this film was Bergman’s most controversial to that point, since the sexuality is so tame, even the scene of ester masturbating is really nothing to get excited over (pun intended), even though we see- in an upside down shot of Thulin’s magnificently structured facial cheekbones, that Ester is enjoying herself. This eroticism, and the censorship battles over the film upon its release in country after country, made it Bergman’s biggest grossing film in his career.

  The cinematography in this film is more daring than in the two other film’s of the trilogy- both in camera movements, the usage of light and shade- especially in the scene where Anna is forced to watch a man and a woman have sex at the dwarves’ cabaret, and in his use of subjective shots from the points of view of the lead characters, mostly Johan. The musical interludes consist mostly of Bach’s music, especially The Goldberg Variations, and are deployed well. Musical taste seems to be the only thing the two sisters can agree on, re-emphasizing the old adage of it being the universal language.

  The Silence is the longest of the three Spider Trilogy films, at 95 minutes, but it seems the shortest, for it is the most quickly paced, with the shortest scenes, and is largely shorn of the long monologues its two predecessors have. It does, however, have the most symbolism of the three films, which again undercuts the mistaken critical consensus that Bergman had abandoned such techniques when he started this sequence of films. And the schismatic sisters in this film prefigure the more melodramatic personality sharing of the actress and nurse in Persona, only in a more dramatically believable and realistic way. Anna is free, sexually wild, and her body’s none too subtle motions bespeak this while Ester’s hair is pulled back, and she looks a typically Bergmanian severe and sexually repressed, as almost all of Thulin’s Bergman characters are. This character goes to the extreme of even declaring she hates the fish-like smell of semen, although to compensate for the character’s misanthropy, she looks far more sexually appealing in this film than in Winter Light.

  Yet, through it all, I could not get the idea that this film was in some way influenced by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone television series, which was in its heyday when this film was made. It has all the psychological and sociological hallmarks- weirdness in the nonsense language of the foreigners (reminiscent of such Twilight Zone episodes as the one where beautiful people are considered ugly), a child’s point of view, tension, deeper issues masquing under the obvious- save for the sexuality and paranormal, that Serling specialized in, and seems far more akin to it than the two other films in the Spider Trilogy. Regardless, it is an excellent film that touches on some quintessential Bergmanian obsessions, and, for doing so, it grabs hard at the human.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unspoken Cinema website.]

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