With every Ingmar Bergman film I watch, I inevitably do not understand the character motivations, but then again, I never question them, either. Every line the characters say seems to be the right thing; there is never any hesitation on their part. That is why watching a Bergman film is a physical experience for me, something completely visceral. My mind detects themes, but my gut takes all the punches, feels all the emotion, and that is where the real storytelling happens.
The Silence (1963) is one of those films that defies comprehension but is undeniable accurate. Its construction is so minimal that it almost resembles fantasy. There is a post-apocalyptic emptiness that pervades every scene, desperately realistic in its outlook. Looking out the window of a train, a boy sees only a parallel train carrying tanks into the city; when it has passed, the landscape is empty, so empty that it appears as though the train is hardly moving. Traveling with him are his mother and her sister, experiencing the last throws of a disparate relationship about to collapse. Their emotional destruction mirrors their destitute, hollow surroundings. Even the hotel they stay at is empty, save for a troupe of theatrical dwarfs and an elderly bellhop. By the end of their stay, the mother and sister say their final words; mother and son retreat back to the train, while the sister stays on in the hotel, living out her last days diseased and alone.
Bergman’s jump-off seems to be that even during wartime, we’re still capable of doing even greater damage to each other. The soul is what concerns Bergman, and when it seems to be the only vestige of humanity that war hasn’t stolen, the film portrays characters that are more interested in destroying it than preserving it. The philosophy is certainly pessimistic, but Bergman does end on a hopeful note, because the son seems to realize the cold-heartedness of his mother, and is beginning to resent it. So rather than giving up on life, Bergman shows both the capability of our moral collapse, as well as the seed of a new possibility.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.