The Silence (1963)

Set in a sweltering months of summer, The Silence focuses on a stop over in a large hotel in a foreign city where sisters Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindbolm find themselves unable to speak to one another or anyone else. Caught in the middle of these two silently feuding sisters is a young moppish haired boy who spends his hours wandering about the halls, encountering a strange assortment of characters.

While the younger sister (Lindbolm) throws her heart and body into carnal pleasure, the older sister (Thulin) washes away her desires with bottle after bottle of vodka. As if without purpose the younger of the two siblings comes and goes as she pleases. The elder sibling holds a job as a translator, but for all the languages she knows she is unable to communicate with the hotel’s elderly waiter. She lays in bed growing sicker and weaker she longs to connect with her sister. Full of inexplicable anger and frustration the younger sister desperately wants to be rid of her sister. The confines of the hotel, the sweat filled air, and the growing tension of a war that looms just outside their window only increase Lindbolm’s desires to rebel. Uninterested in the deep human connections her sister so dearly wants from her, Lindbolm hits the streets, unable to communicate with anyone, but still able to pick up a lover she returns to the hotel to relay her conquest to her sister. It’s hard to decipher the emotions in Lindbolm’s reaction – shock, anger, jealousy, pity – she can only watch as her sister leaves once again to revisit her new partner.

The young boy stands trapped between the two sisters. His mother abandons him, preferring the company of men. His aunt is dying before his eyes. He is left alone, to roam freely about the corridors of the hotel. He meets a group of performing dwarves, outsiders themselves, but very able to communicate and enjoy on another’s presence. They are of his size, but not of his world. Someone he can connect with is much different physically. The tall, elderly waiter and the boy share a smile, a snack, and the man shows the boy a series of old photos of coffins. He is, of all the characters the most obvious clue to Bergman’s allegorical story. With the younger sister and the boy planning to catch the next train out of town, the sick, dying sister makes a last minute plea to God, asking him to let her die in her homeland. Her prayer goes unanswered as the sister and the boy decide to depart.

Full of eroticism, tension, and a brutal awakening – for the young boy – Bergman’s final film in his God and Man Trilogy leaves little room for hope. The young sister’s bitter refusal to make peace with her own sister is devastatingly callous. The use of distance and darkness creates a nihilistic image of a world where salvation is hopeless and a lack of human connection opens a gateway to hell. As the young lad watches his own mother sneak off into another hotel room with a strange man the selfish actions of his mother come to ahead. All but giving up on her sister the dying aunt begins to make a list of foreign words she has been able to translate. It’s unclear what words are written on that note that the young boy’s aunt gives him, but as he reads them, as his mother stares out the train window, it becomes quite clear that those words will forever change that young boys view of his mother and of life itself.

A film like this works not like a pressure cooker, but a slow cooker. Taking its time, wandering the halls of the hotel much like it wanders around the strange relationship between its central characters, Bergman does little to keep the audience actively engaged. I hate for this to sound like an insult, but you really have to want to see this film through. It’s certainly not easy to watch the pained relationship between these sisters grow more painful by the minutes. Moments of levity come when the boy is set loose into the hotel’s hallways. Similarities between films of Kubrick and Lynch films are sure to excite cinefiles who relish in off-kilter characters and hotel dramas. For me, the real excitement is not in the sideshow, but in the center ring where the two sisters grapple with one another’s distinctly different personas.

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