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the silence » krzysztof kieślowski
by Krzysztof Kieślowski
Translated by Paul Coates
Bergman's silence is as piercing as the absences of Fellini, Buñuel and Tarkovsky, as the beautiful but unalluring films of Kurosawa, or the ungainly ones of Wajda. It has to be said clearly that we who are younger by a generation or two have not succeeded in stepping into their shoes.
If the truth be told, when I think of contemporary cinema increasingly often the image of a graveyard appears before me. Graves–and bent over them a few elderly men, uncertain and careful in their movements, with a motorway nearby, chock-full of cars that are technically perfect but as alike as peas in a pod.
I reflect on what it was that set Bergman's The Silence apart from other films of its time, thirty years ago, and why so many people in so many countries wanted to see it. It was its tone.
That is something that is very hard to put into words but can be clearly felt and is patent during the screening and long afterwards. It was the first Bergman film to be so uncompromisingly personal and uniform in its style, its mode of narration. It had taken seventeen years of work (he began in 1945 with Crisis, and The Silence comes from 1962) for him to grasp that a film's power comes from the unrelenting honesty of its maker, his courage in refusing to retreat by as much as one step. Not from its philosophical construction (The Seventh Seal, which I do not like), its original and beautiful record of dreams and overpowering nightmares (as in Wild Strawberries), its social elucidation of dramatic events (as in Summer with Monika, which I like a lot)–but from its delineation of feelings we all experience and understand, as we tremble incessantly between love and hate, between fear of death and a longing for rest, between envy and generosity, between a keen sense of humiliation and the joy of revenge.
The Silence takes place in the oppressive stickiness of a baking day and a hot night, which has room for eroticism and lust but none for love, in which the absence of pity, sympathy or even a drop of understanding is a thoroughly natural condition. Throughout this dark, bleak, fearsomely sad film–outside its action and utterances–there pulses a tiny groundless flame of hope.
I know where the bright trace comes from in this dark film. From Bergman's profound belief in humanity, even where circumstances or feelings compel the protagonists to be cruel and ruthless. To aver that the hope is associated with little Johan (Jörgen Lindström)–with the presence of the child–would be too facile. It would be an oversimplification to find it in the letter Ester (Ingrid Thulin) writes to the boy before they leave her or believe that it is given in the words of the foreign language Ester understood, translated, and now passes on to Johan.
It would be even more inappropriate to discern it in the figure of the old maitre d'hotel (Håkan Jahnberg), who helps the sick Ester, brings her vodka and food, wipes the sweat from her face and plays with Johan. No, the hope in this film–invisible but ever-present–is hidden much deeper. It is in Ester's delicate, actually fleeting gesture as she watches Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) sleeping naked, with little Johan snuggled up to her, and suspends her hand in mid-air, then withdraws it, fearing to stroke her sister: fearing a gesture that would indicate feeling. It is surely that. Is it love? Yes. It is in the violent reaction of Anna, who, after humiliating Ester by letting her see her in the arms of a casual lover, laughs, happy to have caused her sister pain, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, the laughter turns into tears as despairing as the laughter had been hateful. Why does Anna laugh? Because she hates her sister. Why does she cry? Because she loves her. Love: the love one cannot show if one has plunged so deeply into the display of hostility, into reciprocal humiliation; the love one cannot admit to, even to oneself: this is the hidden, invisible, yet continual small flicker of hope in The Silence. How Ester and Anna must have loved one another in their childhood before they discovered that their father gave them great love but each felt it to be unjust. When did they understand this? Did a word, a gesture or perhaps just a look from their father engender jealousy, then ecstatic hatred? Somewhere, somebody made a mistake. But who? The father? One of the sisters? The mother, who goes unmentioned throughout the film? If one ponders these questions in earnest, with the knowledge one now has of Fanny and Alexander (the mother quickly forgets the father's death and marries the severe pastor)–it seems as if it must have been the mother. It is possible that where the future is concerned the mistake that will sow uncomprehended complexes and pain in Johan is the moment when he sees his mother shamelessly kissing the waiter (Birger Malmsten).
We never learn why the sisters set off on their trip, nor where to. We do not learn why they have stopped in a small foreign town where no-one speaks German, English, French or Swedish, and the people in the streets exchange not a word. We do not learn what country this is or with whom it is at war. We do not learn whether Ester dies in this town or returns home. We do not learn what was in Ester's letter to Johan. I do not think Bergman knows either. The pleasure of watching this film does not lie in the solving of riddles, for there is no solution. It lies in the search for a solution.
Bergman's silence is no riddle. The question remains whether he ran out of strength or patience, but the answer is of scant importance. Bergman's silence is a fact. When I look at the photographs of him from a year or two back my heart bleeds. He looks at the camera, his left hand resting on the arm of Bille August in a way that is friendly but not overdone. He is wearing a shirt buttoned up to the neck and a windcheater like the one he always wore: a simple suit-length jacket with no lapels and a high collar. He smiles somewhat queasily. His dark eyes looking at the camera, their eyelids drooping at their outer edges, are slightly misted, absent. This man is one of the few film directors–perhaps the only one in the world–to have said as much about human nature as Dostoevsky or Camus. He built The Silence very simply.
Everything superfluous has been removed from the film. Either it was not in the script or he threw out unnecessary scenes, dialogues and situations during the editing. The film has no passages or shots to define the action's location (establishing shots). The protagonists are in a train, then all at once they're in a hotel; we do not see them descend from the train, go through the town or look for a taxi. If Anna walks down a street it is not to get from one place to another but to allow us to grasp the growth of her desire. So she walks quickly (to the right), passing the silent walkers, hastens across the street, still affected by the brutal erotic scene she has just witnessed in the cabaret. Then she halts abruptly, stands still for a moment. She doubles back. This time she goes more slowly (and leftwards), swinging her hips ever so slightly. She returns to the cafe where the waiter had earlier eyed her legs for a moment while pretending to drop a coin. She halts between the tables. She waits for a moment in a wide shot until the waiter appears, glances at him, then exits the frame. The waiter follows her with his eyes then goes up to a colleague; we understand that he has asked him to take over from him. Cut. Watched by Ester, Anna enters the hotel room. She takes off her knickers and places them in the basin to wash them, which she does almost out of frame. This is not prudery on Bergman's part: we see just as much as we need to in order to judge that she removes her knickers out of distaste for what must have remained there from her relations with the waiter.
Bergman needed four shots to recount the scene on the street–five for the scene of the washing of the knickers. In Images he writes that he was short of money when it came to shooting the scenes in the cafe and the cabaret, and immediately comments–correctly–that a lack of money is not always a drawback for a film. Both scenes are clear and dramatic in their spareness. The film's editing is harsh, clear-cut, shot and countershot. On several occasions Bergman uses parallel montage, which helps greatly in maintaining tension. As far as I recall he edits within the frame twice: once at the beginning in the train (the first shot of the film) and it isn't such a great move; and then in the fine scene of the sisters' conversation at dusk by the hotel window. This is the scene in which Anna lies to provoke Ester's jealous outburst. The grey faces of Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom in big close-ups, picked out by Nykvist's camera shifting focus at the most perfectly chosen moments. I do not want to analyse the entire film in this way, I simply want to demonstrate through a few examples how simple and precise was the method Bergman used when filming The Silence.
I'd like to dwell on one shot for a moment. It lasts a few seconds, maybe seven, maybe four. I have already mentioned that a war is underway or ending in the country where the heroines are staying. There are only a few signs of the war, but it is obvious. The wonderfully lit shot of Johan beside the train window as we see on his face the shadows of tanks moving on freight wagons on the neighbouring track. The cries of the newspaper vendors (we do not understand what they are shouting) clearly relating to the course of the war. And finally the shot I have in mind. A close-up of a water carafe and a glass beside it. The carafe and the glass start to shake. Small ripples begin to appear on the water. One can hear the unpleasant heavy sound of large machines and a moment later Anna (or is it Ester?) looks through the window and sees a column of tanks rolling down the street. Excellent editing short-cut, perceptive use of a metaphorical image to evoke a totally real fact.
I remember how, during the screening of Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, when the glasses shaking in the cupboard told of the Russian tanks' arrival in Prague in 1968, I had the feeling that I knew that idea from somewhere. Now, watching The Silence after many years, I know where it came from–from Bergman. There is nothing wrong with copying: the thing is to imitate the best, and Kaufman found a good solution to the task before him. As did Bergman: the shot of Johan's face with the tanks also has a source, the Lumières' Arrival of a Train at a Station, one of the world's first films. It would be good if someone marked the centenary of cinema with a monograph on these "wandering notions".
In many of his films Bergman touched on death, and his dead even visited the living (Fanny and Alexander). It is ever-present in The Silence too: "when father was still alive..."; "father, before he died..."; "just before his death, father..."–all said by Ester, herself severely ill and, in the penultimate scene, dying.
Death is a theme of the cinema because it is a theme of life. Two weeks ago a newspaper report: Fellini in hospital. Today I look at the photograph of Bergman embracing Bille August in a way that is friendly but not overdone. At his direct look at the camera, slightly misted and absent. What do you see beyond the camera, Mr. Bergman? On the cover of the French edition of Images (Paris, 1992) is the well-known photograph of the man in the black cloak and close-fitting black skull-cap. He extends his hand to the left, drawing out the cloak, and the image is three-quarters black.
© Maria Kieślowski