Two sisters—the sickly, intellectual Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and the sensual, pragmatic Anna (Gunnel Lindblom)—travel by train with Anna’s young son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), to a foreign country that appears to be on the brink of war. Attempting to cope with their alien surroundings, each sister is left to her own vices while they vie for Johan’s affection, and in so doing sabotage what little remains of their relationship. Regarded as one of the most sexually provocative films of its day, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence offers a disturbing vision of emotional isolation in a suffocating spiritual void.
Two women, Anna and Ester, accompanied by Johan, Anna’s ten-year-old-son, travel slowly through the night by train into a foreign country that seems to be at war. They are sisters, it will turn out, perhaps lovers. We will never discover the reason for their journey, to a place where the inhabitants, the culture, and the language are unknown to them. Perhaps it is to pare down or discard the normal trappings of their lives, to take the consequences of who they turn out to be.
The Silence (1963) was originally titled God’s Silence, and it is the third in what Ingmar Bergman refers to as a trilogy, whose previous two films—Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1962)—explore explicit questions of religious faith. Following his great international successes with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman here tries to come to terms with the pious rigidity and strangled emotional life of his own upbringing at the hands of a father who was a Lutheran clergyman and, later, court chaplain to the king of Sweden.
But both earthly and heavenly fathers are absent from The Silence, whose bleak setting is based on Bergman’s own experiences of European cities after World War II. Outside is an incomprehensible world of unreadable street signs, surging crowds, and tanks roaring in the middle of the night. Inside is a formerly grand Hotel Europa, where the three travelers have taken rooms.
The Silence is in part a prelude to later films, in which Bergman has shifted his focus from God to people, from theology to psychology. But ideas are inert without visual expression, and it is Bergman’s genius to invite us, through extreme close-ups, to enter the mystery of people, of their faces. This preoccupation with faces, what they reveal and what they hide, is enhanced in The Silence, as in so many of Bergman’s films, by the reappearance of brilliant actors and actresses from his “stock company.” Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom were both in Winter Light, and Jörgen Lindström shows up at the beginning of Persona (1966). In the bare rooms of The Silence, where Anna and Ester battle each other for Johan’s soul, Bergman—crucially aided by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, with whom he continued to work for most of his career—intensifies the exploration of light and time which he began in Winter Light.
The unfathomable “silence” of this city has reduced the adults in the triangle to an almost zero level of communication with the outside world. Every personal connection is oblique and truncated, creating an ominous atmosphere in which gestures and symbols are often fugitive or vaguely menacing. Bergman calls it “a rendering of hell on earth—my hell.” But this hell also mirrors what the real experience of travel can become when ignorance of language and custom provokes a helpless regression to childhood and its sometimes desperate effort to decipher meaning.
For the young and curious Johan, wandering the corridors of the strangely vacant hotel, the brooding foreign city is merely the shell of an adult world whose impenetrable emotional climate is determined by his mother and aunt. (This is made more palpable by the pervasive heat and unrelieved sweating.) As Bergman has remarked, “My impulse has nothing to do with intellect or symbolism: it has only to do with dreams and longing, with hopes and desires, with passion.”
Anna and Ester form two sides of a whole person, a theme Bergman would go on to further explore in Persona. Anna is defined almost entirely through her physicality—washing, anointing herself with perfume and lotions, getting dressed and undressed, having sex, watching others have sex. Ester, the translator, with her typewriter, paper, and pens, is instead a creature of language—suffering from the lung disease that suffocates her, masturbating, smoking, drinking, and thinking of sex as a mechanical matter of “erections and secretions” that disgust her. Her body in ruin, only words seem to keep her alive.
Amid the noise, music, and silence that layer the soundtrack, Anna and Ester are locked in a cryptic struggle that plays out before Johan’s eyes and in his feelings. As in many of Bergman’s films from this period on, the lessons of human nature are to be learned from the lives of women. Although we see many things that he does not, Johan’s perspective is the spine of the film. It is the movement of his sympathies from his seductive mother to his intellectual, ailing aunt that gives coherence and force to Bergman’s meditation on human frailty.
– Leo Braudy