The Silence begins with sisters Anna and Ester, and Anna's young son, traveling by train toward the family home in Sweden, through an unnamed country in Eastern Europe that is mobilizing for war -- convoys of tanks are visible through train window. Ester becomes ill, and they decide to break their trip in the city of Timoka so she can rest at a hotel. There is a barely-contained hostility between the sisters. Ester, a translator, is austere and intellectual, and appears not only sexually-repressed, but both disgusted and obsessed by her sister's sensuality. Anna is openly sexual, provocative, and resentful of her dominating sister. Anna's son Johan is bored and curious, and torn between the demands of both women. The tension between them finally explodes, as does the battle for the allegiance of the boy.
The idea for The Silence had been gestating for years. Bergman originally planned the characters to be an old man and a young boy traveling together. The foreign city is based on a recurring dream Bergman had, which he had used in a 1950s radio play. "Timoka" was the title of a book Bergman saw on his Estonian-born wife's bookshelf. She told him it meant "pertaining to an executioner," but he liked the sound of the word, and decided it would be a good name for the city. As for the language spoken there, Bergman claimed he made it up, and the words had no meaning. The actors all learned the language from the script, except Hakan Jahnberg, who played the elderly hotel waiter. He couldn't learn it, so he made up his own, reviving an old childhood trick of speaking his lines backward in Swedish.
Perhaps because The Silence was so emotionally intense, Bergman decided to be more playful with the visual style. Sven Nykvist's camera swoops and moves down the hotel corridors, and goes overhead to look down on Johan playing. The lighting and the framing of shots are arresting and unconventional. The film "contains a cinematic sensibility that I still experience with delight," Bergman recalled three decades later. "To put it simply, we had an enormous amount of fun making The Silence. Furthermore, the actresses were talented, disciplined, and almost always in a good mood."
Gunnel Lindblom, who played Anna, remembered it a bit differently. She recalled Bergman's temper as "volcanic. He used to refer to anyone who didn't throw furniture around as 'inhibited.'" Lindblom was on the receiving end of that temper when she refused to be nude in a sex scene. She insisted that he use a body double for the scenes that required nudity, and he reluctantly agreed, whispering loudly to a makeup man, "What is so f---ing important about those hellish goddamned cursed globs of fat?!" If Lindblom was inhibited, it certainly didn't affect her performance. Both she and Thulin are devastatingly intense, and hold back nothing.
Those sex scenes (including one where Anna observes a couple having sex in a theater, and another of Ester masturbating) ignited a worldwide firestorm of controversy. They also made The Silence Bergman's most financially-successful film to date. The Swedish Board of Film Censors approved the film without any cuts. Headlines blared, "Moral Outrage" and "Indignation and Abhorrence for Bergman Film." There were lawsuits and protests, and discussions in Parliament. In a 1969 interview, Bergman said that he received threatening letters, including an anonymous one containing "filthy toilet paper...the treatment accorded to this film, which by today's standards was pretty innocuous, was rather fierce." There were threats on his life and that of his wife, and they were subjected to "telephone terror."
Censors in France demanded cuts. In Argentina, the film's distributor was given a one-year suspended prison sentence. The controversy brought millions into theaters in West Germany, Britain, and the United States. Posters quoted Wanda Hale's review from the New York Daily News: "I couldn't believe my eyes! On incest, self-defilement and nymphomania, this Bergman latest is the most shocking film I have ever seen." The original U.S. trailer also emphasized the sex and shock value, featuring Hale's quote, along with one from Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune that warned, "Not for the prudish. It demands maturity and sophistication from the viewer. There is no doubt this film contains more overt sexuality than we have ever seen on screen." In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther's review was respectful, but mystified: "The grapplings of Ingmar Bergman with loneliness, lust, and loss of faith, so weirdly displayed in his last two pictures...have plunged him at last into a tangle of brooding confusions and despairs in his latest film...Whether this strange amalgam of various states of loneliness and lust articulates a message may be questionable, but it does, at least resolve into a vaguely affecting experience that moves one like a vagrant symphony."
Today, it's hard to understand the controversy over The Silence, but it's apparent that the spiritual trilogy set Bergman on a new path. After making the comedy About These Women (1964) and suffering a serious illness, he returned with one of his most mysterious and challenging films, Persona (1966), which took his work to a whole new level of visual poetry and psychological depth.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Producer: Allan Ekelund
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Editor: Ulla Ryghe
Costumes: Mark Vos-Lundh
Art Direction: P.A. Lundgren
Music: Ivan Renliden, R. Mersey
Principal Cast: Ingrid Thulin (Ester), Gunnel Lindblom (Anna), Jorgen Lindstrom (Johan, Anna's son), Hakan Jahnberg (room service waiter), Birger Malmsten (waiter in bar), the Eduardinis (dwarfs), Eduardo Gutierrez (their impresario)
by Margarita Landazuri