I was not prepared for the extent to which Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre would embrace the uncanny. He may not be a David Lynch, but where Lynch’s nightmares are often emphatically surreal, Bergman’s use of the dreamlike is more subtle, more psychological, and probably more Freudian – though not in the overly literal way that pop-Freudians tends to go for. Unless we’re talking about Hour of the Wolf, which indeed feels like proto-Lynch in its final third, Bergman’s onereic sequences – when they are not explicitly dreams, as for instance in Wild Strawberries – always leave it up to the viewer whether what they are seeing is really happening or not, and to what extent it is filtered through, or even distorted by, a character whose perception is less than reliable.
The Silence, Bergman’s follow-up to Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light (the three films are sometimes considered a thematic trilogy), is dreamlike in its tone and atmosphere throughout, so it is fitting that it starts with one of its main characters asleep on a train. This is Ester (Ingrid Thulin), travelling with Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Anna’s son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). Ester and Anna’s relationship is ambiguous: are they friends? Siblings? Lovers, even? What heightens the ambiguity is that we see the two women, and the world they travel through, mainly through the eyes of ten-year-old Johan, who would surely know how the two women relate to each other and to him. However, while much of the film is focalised through the boy, we don’t have access to his interior landscape: how does he feel about any of what is happening? Where Bergman’s adult male characters can hardly stop talking about what is going on inside them, Johan is mostly silent, but he is in no way the only character who reflects the title of the film.
Like Johan, we are stuck in a world that hints at larger things happening, but we have no understanding of these things. In the train ride that the film starts on, Johan wanders off and peers through the windows to see tanks flitting by, and these tanks look like toys, possibly an effect of Bergman’s budget only allowing for one actual tank that features briefly in the film’s last third, but this too adds to the sense of unreality. When they arrive in a town, the last stop before their return home to Sweden, the people speak a language that is incomprehensible even to Ester, who works as a translator, and the corridors of the once-grand, now slightly seedy hotel are maze-like and confusing.
Through Johan especially, we enter this uncanny world without ever quite understanding it, and the feel, while more interior, is not unlike that of the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. We don’t get overt markers of surrealism – especially compared to the nightmarish final sequence of Hour of the Wolf, in which characters walk on walls and ceilings – but we are definitely in the realm of the uncanny, the unheimlich, in which one can never feel at home. Things are subtly wrong, as they are between Ester and Anna. We find out that the former is dying of an unnamed disease, and her way of coping with the fear and the physical pain is to keep herself at a constant level of inebriation. Meanwhile, Anna seeks out impromptu sexual encounters in order to hurt and push away her sister (though we only know the exact nature of the women’s relationship late in The Silence). Johan finds some sympathy with the denizens of the hotel, but he does not speak or understand their language, nor does he understand what is going on between Ester and Anna – but he seems to sense what Ester is going through.
The silence of the title is rarely the physical absence of sound, it is more psychological and even metaphysical, and it expresses itself in the uncanny elements of the film: meaning is just out of reach of the characters, and there is nothing they can do about it. In making my way through Criterion’s magnificent box set, it is Bergman’s use of the uncanny that stays with me most in between the individual films: the dreams and visions and hallucinations, the objects and conversations that leave the viewer as much as the characters unsettled and unmoored. We may not get visions of spider Gods, as Karin does in Through a Glass Darkly, but we walk the corridors of Bergman’s emotional landscapes like Johan. We are shown images by the elderly hotel porter, morbid and disquieting, but we do not understand his words. Not all of the films we’ve watched reflect this side of Bergman’s moviemaking, but even in the more conventional early works or the more solidly naturalistic films, Bergman tends to make sure that we never feel the ground beneath our feet to be particularly stable. There is always something waiting just out of sight, mere inches behind the façade, waiting to break through and change everything.