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“The Silence,” 1963

Written and directed by Ingmar Berman

Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, Birger Malmstead, Håkan Jhanberg, Jörgen Lindström


            When I was fifteen years old, I saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence for the first time.  In the summer of 1963, my cousin Richie and I drove from the small town of Sound Beach, Long Island to the art cinema in Port Jefferson. I had never seen a Bergman film before and the experience that August evening had a lasting effect on me. At the time, I had no idea of the controversy swirling around The Silence, especially in Bergman’s home country of Sweden. The head of the Swedish Censorship Board famously declared that if he had been present the day the film came before the Board, he would have rejected it. Attacked for being amoral and portraying eroticism, the film did not suffer from the criticism. Surprising even Bergman, it went on to be his biggest commercial success up to that time. 

            As we drove towards the cinema, Richie explained that the film was by a great Swedish director and that I had to see this film. His recommendation was enough for me. Richie had a way of looking at the world in a different light that he would let others see, briefly, as if he was the caretaker of that light. I had little reason to disbelieve him. He was my childhood mentor and teenage sophisticate.  Although we spent several weeks each summer on the north shore of Long Island, I lived in a small suburban town in New Jersey. Richie lived in Manhattan, went to a private school, and had introduced me to opera, Hemingway novels, and his own brand of flamboyant behavior.

            The opening scene of the film tells us much about the three main characters. Riding in a private railroad compartment are two adult sisters and one small child, a boy, Johan. The mother of the child, Anna, is slumped in one seat in what appears to be a sexual trance: her mouth hangs slightly open, her eyes appear glazed over, and her face and chest are covered in sweat. In sharp contrast is Ester, the elder sister. Her eyes are closed, she is crisply dressed in a white suit, and she appears cool and confident. The boy, who also appears to be asleep at first, wanders in and out of the frame, approaching first one sister then the other. The first spoken words of dialogue are addressed to his aunt. “What does the sign say?” he asks, pointing to a notice posted on the window next to the door leading to the corridor.

            “I don’t know,” says the aunt. The sign is written in a language unfamiliar to the travelers. The two sisters do not speak to each other, and throughout the film there is very little direct communication between them until an angry confrontation near the end of the film. Old wounds are revisited, and there seems to be no hope for reconciliation. Even when they argue, the viewer is left with the feeling that although they speak to each other, there is little understanding. Rather, instead of talking to each other, they are talking at each other.

            This thread of the narrative is maintained throughout the film as the family group arrives in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, unable to speak the language. Communication is difficult, if not impossible, at least through verbal speech. The sisters have booked a room in what appears to have once been a large, luxurious hotel but which is nearly empty of other guests except for a traveling troupe of entertainers. When the aunt calls for room service, she speaks to the elderly waiter in Swedish, and when he does not respond, tries French and English with the same result. A translator by trade, she only manages to learn a few words, and later writes these words down for Johan as a parting gift—a gift he cannot decipher.

            When Johan stumbles upon a troupe of dwarfs (they are referred to in the screenplay as “five very little people”) in the hotel, there is an instant connection but it seems to be based on size and perhaps temperament. Here too, verbal communication is not possible. The screenplay says, “(the) very fat elderly man with white hair says something in his own incomprehensible tongue.”

            The strangers in the film speak to each other in a language the other cannot understand or resort to gestures and pantomime. They often resort to silence. As the last part of Bergman’s Silence of God trilogy (along with Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly) the film’s title not only refers to the silence of its characters, but also the silence or absence of God. The sisters, Johan, everyone involved in this interlude at the hotel are left to fend for themselves with no divine grace or intervention.

            Adding to the sense of isolation and danger are the tanks, first seen through the train window as the three travelers approach the station. Later in the film, Johan feels the rumble of tank treads in the street and glances outside, then runs to be comforted by his aunt. He then puts on a Punch and Judy show for his aunt and when she asks him what Punch has said, Johan answers: “He’s scared so he speaks in a funny language.” 

            Two-thirds through the film, when Anna is in bed with a waiter she picked up from a restaurant, she pointedly says to him: “How nice that we don’t understand each other.” After Johan has seen his mother and the waiter enter an empty hotel room, Johan pauses at a crossroads in the hotel corridors. Standing in the middle of a circle design on the carpet, dead center, are two letter E’s, back to back. At this point, my cousin Richie leaned over to me and in a stage whisper said, “The double E stands for loneliness.”  I was awestruck. And I believed him. Richie was the keeper of knowledge and I was his student. The only problem is that he was lying. Or at best he had invented his own the symbolic interpretation of this shot.


             But at the time, I was utterly convinced. I carried that factoid with me through the years and later, as a student, then a Literature and Film professor, puzzled over that symbol. In fact, that particular symbol never appeared in any other book or film, and I could find no reference to the Double E. My only conclusion now is that Richie made it up on the spot. Bergman’s writings are no help either, and he once declared that he did not use symbols in his films (hard to believe of the director of The Seventh Seal).

            The film seems to be full of symbols despite Bergman’s pronouncements. The ominous ticking of a clock at several points in the narrative, toy-like tanks with their erect turret guns, the troupe of dwarves, the opposite natures of the sisters, even the dialogue. Early in the film, Johan watches his mother walk around the hotel room.

            Anna: What are you looking at?

            Johan: I’m looking at your feet.

            Anna: Oh? Why?

            Joan: They’re walking around with you, all by themselves.

            In fact, much in this film is meant to make the viewer aware of and to heighten the characters’ sense of isolation and the inevitability of death. On one of Johan’s jaunts around the empty hotel corridors, the elder waiter entertains Johan with photographs of his mother’ s funeral. 

Ester is gravely ill and is gripped by bouts of pain and often coughs up blood. As Anna is preparing to leave for home, Ester is left behind in her hotel room and cries out that she does not want to die alone, and at one point pulls up the sheet over her head. Johan enters the room, sees the hotel waiter, and looks at his aunt in the bed with the sheet pulled up over her head. Is she alive or dead?

            The waiter pulls the sheet down, and Ester speaks to Johan. What is the viewer to believe? Is this Anna speaking from the beyond or is she alive and able to give Johan one parting gift, three words scrawled on a sheet of paper that she has translated into Swedish: Hadjek= spirit; Magrov= anxiety or fear; Krasgt= joy. The film ends on a shot of Johan’s face as he tries to read or interpret Ester’s translations.

            So the viewer is left to puzzle out these scenes, communication or the lack of it, connections between the characters, emotional or otherwise. Bergman scatters clues and symbols throughout the film. What do they represent? Do they have a specific meaning to Bergman or is it left up to viewer? Whether the scene includes a moving train, a sexual encounter in a theater, characters framed in a mirror or doorway, verbal or non-verbal communication, or a double E pattern on the hotel carpet, we, as viewers, can create our own interpretations. Whether or not it coincides with what Bergman thought does not matter. In that light, the double E does indeed stand for loneliness.         




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