Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Silence (Tystnaden)

Film’s opening in Stockholm

Director Ingmar Bergman

Bergman on the set with actress Ingrid Thulin

Bergman on the set with child actor Jörgen Lindström

Bergman directing a scene with dwarves

Bergman on the set with actress Gunnel Lindblom

THE SILENCE (Tystnaden)                          B                    
Sweden  (96 mi)  1963 d:  Ingmar Bergman

All this talk... There’s no need to discuss loneliness.  It’s a waste of time.
―Ester (Ingrid Thulin)

You were born without purpose, you live without meaning, living is its own meaning.
―Ingmar Bergman from his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, 1987

With this film, Bergman has finally jettisoned God from our lives, left behind like baggage from the past, instead finding ourselves tangled in a moral abyss, capturing the existential ennui of modern existence, trapped in an apocalyptic world that projects the future with the past, transforming it into a kind of timeless purgatory of doom, much like Christian Petzold’s recent film 2018 Top Ten List #3 Transit, with suggestions that the streets are overrun with escaping refugees with nowhere to go, where there’s a burning desire to escape, yet citizens are trapped in the isolation of their own carefully sealed off lives, emotionally imprisoned by their own futility.  While it’s clear no one else makes films like this, reportedly the favorite Bergman film of Krzysztof Kieslowski, the tone is surprisingly modernist, yet purposefully vague on the details, creating a languishing feeling of inertia, like being stuck in limbo, trapped in a place where time literally stops, where each breath could be your last, yet what does it amount to?  The film is another variation of Sartre’s No Exit, with people finding themselves struggling to comprehend their meaningless lives, as the future is uncertain, offering no hint of salvation.  Shot in the midst of the Cold War, with the threat of the atom bomb on the horizon, growing closer by the minute, with the Berlin Wall recently constructed dividing East from West, the sense of isolation and impending doom was paramount, as people lived on either side of the divide, with no discourse connecting them together, each leading separate and invisible lives.  Apparently inspired by his personal travels by train as a boy across the European landscape after the war, Bergman captures this intensified emotional angst, as the sense of detachment is overwhelming from the outset, offering no introduction, finding ourselves with three passengers on a train in an enclosed cabin that is stifling hot, none uttering a single word, as they shift from seat to seat and try unsuccessfully and uncomfortably to sleep on the seats.  This opening lull feels out of sorts, as if we haven’t been properly introduced, but it feels interminable.  We are in the company of two sisters, Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), along with Anna’s ten-year old son Johan (Jörgen Lindström), who amuses himself in the hallway staring out the window at a morning sunrise, watching another train pass the other way carrying tanks and military artillery.  As Ester is sick, with later suggestions that she may have an undisclosed terminal illness, subject to spasmodic breathing fits, they stop in the next town called Timoka, ending up in a grandiose old-world hotel, sharing adjoining rooms, where next to nothing happens, few words are spoken, with both vying for Johan’s love, yet it continues to be a suffocating atmosphere of boredom and heat.  Despite her condition, Ester drinks vodka heavily and smokes, working at her typewriter as a professional translator, though when she runs out of vodka or has one of her breathing fits, she rings for the aging porter (Håkan Jahnberg), a kindly old man who resembles Isak Borg from Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) (1957).  Immediately it’s apparent they don’t speak a common language, finding themselves unable to communicate with the world around them (using an invented language that remains unsubtitled), using hand signals instead. 

What’s curiously different here is the use of the young boy, as much of the film is seen through his exploratory eyes as he wanders around the empty corridors of the hotel, which certainly captured the attention of director Stanley Kubrick, modeling his film THE SHINING (1980) on what he saw here, though each film evolves quite differently.  What’s initially striking is just how empty the hotel is, a stark contrast from Johan’s views out the window of crowded streets, capturing the hustle and bustle of a modern city, yet with with unreadable street signs and newspapers in a foreign language, with throwbacks of an earlier age with a horse-drawn cart stuffed to the gills with rickety old belongings, while in the evenings he watches tanks take position on the streets, all with ominous implications.  We discover they have the entire hotel to themselves, with the exception of a group of performing dwarves that share a single room, who happen to lure Johan inside, making a fuss over him, playfully dressing him up in a girl’s dress, which doesn’t seem to bother him at all, bouncing on the bed to amuse him, fascinated by their apparent fun and frivolity.  To him they seem perfectly normal, certainly more so than the suffocating presence of the two sisters who eerily ignore each other, allowing Johan free reign to roam the hallways.  While Ester is coldly intellectual, internalizing her personal anguish and pain, whose frigidity is in stark contrast to her sister, as Anna is vivaciously sensual, flaunting her physique, even allowing her son to scrub her back while taking a bath (with Ester staring), also showing signs of incestual intimacies with her sister, though at this point Anna angrily rejects her advances.  The tanks come to represent a phallic counterpart to the camera’s obsession with Anna’s figure, both heavily symbolic in a transitional travel reality that requires a reading of signs and clues.  Bothered by the heat, Anna decides to take a walk, stopping in an outdoor café, allowing the first guy she meets to flirt with her, a waiter (Birger Malmsten), though they speak no common language.  Retreating into an uncrowded vaudeville theater, she watches the dwarves do a live stage presentation, but is both intrigued and repelled by a couple openly having sex sitting next to her, eventually returning to the hotel, but not before a brief aside with the waiter.  Ester is eagerly awaiting for her return, wanting to know what happened, so Anna fabricates a lie, punishing her with salacious details, sensing her jealousy, knowing it will hurt her.  It’s a strange sadistic twist, accentuated by Anna’s claim that she has plans to go out again that evening, with Ester pleading for her to stay, not wanting to be alone, but her pleas are ignored, as she leaves anyway.  Johan notices her meet the waiter in the hallway, greeted in a flurry of kisses before they retreat into a vacant room for animalistic sex, where she tells him, “How nice that we don’t understand each other.”  When he reveals to Ester where she is, she pays a visit, only to be treated with derision, with Anna brazenly having sex right in front of her, doing everything that she can to mock her infatuated concerns, using her open promiscuity to intentionally humiliate her sister, relishing her revenge, resentful of her former dominance and hating her for it, now repulsed by her sight, where the intensity of her hatred is shocking.   

The story is plodding, not particularly eventful, and the dialogue is sparse, while the principal setting is a luxury hotel, much like the cool detachment and air of sophisticated refinement expressed in the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) (1961), with Sven Nykvist producing a kind of poetically abstract and avant garde look, featuring exquisite German Expressionist photography, with close-ups of illuminated faces moving in and out of the shadows, featuring an extraordinary choreography of faces that will eventually lead to Persona (1966), while making effective use of mirrors, all to theatrical effect, elevating the level of suspense onscreen.  Viewers can only get a full understanding of what’s going on near the end, as Bergman withholds information, leaving audiences guessing, but also surprised by the explicitness of the sex scenes, denounced in the Swedish parliament as “perverted” and vociferously debated in the national press, where the publicity over censorship drew crowds, with lines around the block, making it a resounding financial success with a larger viewing audience than any other Bergman film at the time.  Coming on the heels of Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), revealing an indifference that bewildered audiences, filling the screen with disaffected characters who can’t seem to find their way in the modern world, this final film of Bergman’s Faith Trilogy, a meditation on God’s silence, following Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel) (1961) and Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna) (1962), rejects religion entirely and exists in a moral wasteland, with characters leading insulated lives disconnected from the real world, like an alien reality, where they appear to sleepwalk through the train and hotel, yet one common trait binds them all together, the torment of human suffering.  Ester, in particular, has medical lapses and can’t breathe, unable to continue the journey, but doesn’t want to die alone.  Anna coldly ignores her, as if out of spite, quickly gathering her things as she and her son ready themselves to leave for the train, while the old porter watches over an ailing Ester, perhaps sensing something dire, offering comfort and kindness, connecting earlier through music when they both identified Bach quietly playing on the radio, J S Bach - BWV 988 - Goldberg Variation 25 - YouTube (4:26), suggesting culture transcends all boundaries.  Yet at other times, the sound of low flying jets can be heard screaming across the sky, often followed by sirens, suggesting war is imminent, where a constant theme of death hovers nearby.  And while mostly unspoken, the two women have been at war with each other, presumably for a lengthy period of time, which has eaten away at both of them, with neither left unscathed.  Like Cain and Abel before them, Ester and Anna have a human connection, like two halves of the same whole, where their battle scars are perhaps symptomatic of that incestual family history, like a malignant cancer spreading.  In a brooding godless universe where there is no sign or expectation of hope, offering a pervasive atmosphere of loneliness and despair, man can’t help but fall into the pit of a moral void.  Near the end, alone in bed, Ester’s body language suggests convulsions like in a horror film, literally gasping for air, performing a figurative death before calming down, regaining her composure and writing a letter to Johan, “Words in a foreign language” (emblematic of Bergman’s cinematic voice) that he reads on the train.  Only Johan remains innocent, arguably the only one with a clear conscience, who has soaked it all in and seen the surrounding emptiness, yet has been touched by two women that genuinely love him (appearing again in the opening of Persona), perhaps representing the voice of the future. 

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