Two women and a boy share a compartment on a train. It is an unhappy journey, and we sense tension and dislike between the women. The boy wanders out into the corridor, stares at other passengers, watches as another train passes by, its cars carrying armored tanks. The train stops in an unnamed city, and the three check into a hotel. So begins Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Silence’ (1963), the third part of his ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. If ‘Winter Light’ (1962) directly referred to God’s silence, and ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ (1961) did so by implication, there is no theology in ‘The Silence’ — only a world bereft of it.
The boy, not yet an adolescent, is Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). He has an angelic face and a sweet nature. He is Anna’s son, but apparently has long lived in the middle between the two spiteful sisters. The reason for their spite is never specified, but goes back to childhood and obscurely involves their father. Now that Ester is dying, Anna has little pity for her and flaunts the fact that she is going out into the city — for sex, we somehow understand, or at least as a show of disloyalty.
The film is oblique. Most of the rest of the story involves reading between the lines. I could turn analytical and point out that Anna, who picks up a man and has sex with him in the hotel, represents Body, and that Ester, who works and reads in bed and at the table in her room, represents Mind. The doorway between their rooms is the portal through which they stage their rivalry, and only Johan passes back and forth thoughtlessly.
The film was photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s great longtime collaborator, and I wonder if I can be excused for noticing in Johan’s scenes in the hotel corridors a faint echo of Jacques Tati. The porter bears some slight resemblance to Monsieur Hulot, the boy represents the anarchic winds that were always blowing him off course, and the corridors, filmed with such exact precision, are the geometric spaces which Tati loved to violate with human activity.
When Anna leaves the hotel, she carries herself on the streets and into a bar like a woman asking to be picked up. She enters a theater balcony and sees a couple having sexual intercourse right in front of her. She is disgusted and leaves. Later she picks up a man and brings him to the hotel. Johan sees them together, but she hardly cares. He tells Ester what he has seen. In a way he is asking for an explanation. He is placed in the sad position of being a child too young to process the information in his life, which he somehow senses is urgent.
Over the film hangs a tone of foreboding. The tanks on the train are matched, later, by a single massive tank that rumbles down the street in front of the hotel, pauses and then passes on. There are no explosions, no battles, but war always seems at hand. When Ester’s illness reaches a crisis, there is an odd loud moaning on the soundtrack. An air-raid warning? The music of hell? We do not know. But at the end, when Anna coldly tells her sister that she and Johan are leaving on the next train, Johan returns to promise Ester, “We’ll be back.” The child carries hope in the film. The problem is for hope to survive into adulthood. If you did not believe that God was silent, it would.
The writer is a film critic