After watching the final cut of The Silence in advance of its release in the fall of 1963, the movie’s writer-director Ingmar Bergman turned to the head of the Swedish Film Industry Film Institute, Kenne Fant, and said, “One thing you can be sure of is that nobody will be rushing to see this film.”
In recalling the scene years later (in the interview collection Bergman on Bergman), the filmmaker could take full measure of the irony: the movie turned out to be a box office smash, at least by art film standards of the day.
Much of that success was certainly due not to its artistic and psychological power, but the groundbreaking sex scenes. Moral fulminations and attempts at censorship sealed the deal. The movie was decried by a conservatives in the Swedish Parliament for its “blatant sex scenes, elements of perversion and sick depravity.” No better advertising campaign—free at that—could have been devised.
When the soccer club AC Milan arrived in Sweden to play against the city of Linköpping’s team soon after The Silenceopened, the Italians had themselves bussed two hours north to the capital to see the movie. The Milan coach, Nils Lindholm—a Swede who’d long played for the club before becoming its manager in 1963—provided the real-time translation in the cinema. His task as interpreter was far from demanding since there was precious little dialogue. Action spoke louder than words. Claiming to have been convinced by the picture’s aesthetic merits, the Italian soccer players purportedly found the sex scenes “a bit strong.” Can it be a coincidence that the world’s first commercial hardcore magazine, Private, was launched in Stockholm two years later? Swedish porn was born in the swinging 60s, and swinging Bergman did his arty part.
Controversy fueled the movie’s financial success. Shorn of the ten most-offending minutes, The Silence opened in New York in February of 1964 at two cinemas known for screening nudity. The American trailer pitched the Swedish import as a frank evocation of “a world in which people seek to communicate through the ruthless gratification of their sexual appetites.” Writing in the New York Daily News, Wanda Hall claimed that The Silence was the most shocking film she had ever seen.
The film’s first words are uttered by a blond boy of ten named Johan (Jörgen Lindström). In a first-class train compartment he sits between his mother Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and aunt Ester (Ingrid Thulin). Anna leans back in her seat, her scant, tightly tailored dress revealing much skin glistening with sweat. She stares out the window, fanning herself listlessly with a brochure. The boy rises and moves to the compartment door where he points to a notice posted on the etched glass. “What does that mean?” he asks his aunt, erect in her seat, her hair in a prim bun, her white suit chastely encasing her. “I don’t know,” comes the response, though we’ll later learn that Ester works as a translator.
This exchange might as well serve as the film’s epigram. What does it all mean? No one knows.
These Swedish tourists are in a mythic country of Central/Eastern European contour. Was is coming or perhaps has already arrived. Factories and tanks flash by alongside the tracks. A soldier in what could be a fascist uniform stumbles out of the train’s toilet as the boy watches from down the carriage.
Ester takes violently ill and the three travelers are forced to interrupt their journey and check into a grand, forlorn hotel in the next station city, Timoka. A lanky, elderly porter in tails attends to the guests, especially to the doomed Ester.
A troupe of Spanish dwarves are encountered by the boy when he wanders the near-empty, cavernous hotel. This raucous bunch dress him up as girl, before the ensemble’s manager returns to spoil the fun.
Beset by racking coughs the intellectual sister takes to her bed, though she rouses herself intermittently to work at her translations at a typewriter. She hopes to put together a dictionary for Johan of the few words she has picked up in the local language, one made up by Bergman. In the departing train at film’s end the boy opens his aunt’s note: “To Johan — words in a foreign language.” The one-page dictionary has no entries.
Among other things, the film is about the failure language. What little people say to one another, is mostly opaque or hurtful or both.
“It is good that we don’t understand each other,” Anna tells a hunky Timokan waiter (Håkan Jahnberg) late in the film after they have had sex—one of its erotic segments a meticulously-staged dorsal affair in which we at first are led to think that the man has already left the room. But he emerges almost magically from behind her form. Johan had watched the lovers kiss before outside a room down the hallway. Perhaps he listened to what followed. The aunt is later found on the floor lodged against their door. A violent threesome of love-hate, erotic-antagonistic wrestling ensues.
The only meaningful communication in the movie is textless: sex and Bach. The Silence came three years into Bergman’s decade-long marriage (the third of his five, conducted, as always, amidst countless affairs) to the acclaimed concert pianist, Käbi Laretei. In 1962 he had announced that he would take a break from filmmaking to dedicate himself to his life’s dream of studying the music of J. S. Bach. The break never came. Instead, Bergman brought Bach, whose music is a major character in many of his films, into that Timokan hotel.
The few bits of music heard on the soundtrack of The Silence come from within the film and are heard by its characters. When Ann heads out looking for sex, jazz plays in the bar she visits and is stalked by that waiter. Swinging vibes impart a loungey loucheness to the old-world setting with its Viennese chairs and round, marble-topped tables. Next, lowbrow circus riffs emanate from the orchestra pit box of a vaudeville theatre, where Anna devotes her attention not to the dwarves cavorting on stage, but instead to a couple having sex in the adjacent box.
Back in the somber hotel room, Ester peers through the curtains down at the night-time street. The archetypal music of insomnia, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, plays on a transistor radio on her desk. We are in the midst the twenty-fifth of the work’s thirty variations, the work’s slowest and most mournful, its minor mode (in contrast to the prevailing, playful major antics) saturated with regretful sighs.
Ester picks up the radio and paces the room, cinematographer Sven Nykquist’s camera following her until we see Johan standing next to Anna in front of the mirror on her chest drawers in the far room. Anna is putting on her jewelry and make-up, getting ready for her assignation with the waiter in nearby room.
Ester sits down at a table and caresses the radio as mother and son appear in deep focus. Then in a close-up they embrace to Bach’s downcast whispers. The porter enters with tea and asks what he hears. “Music,” says Esther. He repeats it, apparently the same word in his language, no translation necessary. “Sebastian Bach,” Esther clarifies. He seems to know that, and gives her the composer’s full name: “Johann Sebastian Bach.” He takes off his glasses (sight only distracts the ear) and they both listen for a moment with son on mother’s lap in the far room at the center of the frame. The porter departs as if on cue during the pause at the midpoint of the variation, the music starting only after he is gone.
Bach’s music represents a universal language understood by all who carefully listen. (Anna is indifferent to it.) In this battle between mind and body fought between the sisters, the one sensual, the other intellectual, Bach is cerebral rather than seductive. There is irony here, too, for the variation we’ve just heard is one of his most emotional, and the least calculated of the Goldbergs.
Ester turns off the radio as Anna gets ready to leave for her assignation. Before she goes, though, Anna turns and tries to provoke Ester by telling her lies about having already had sex with the waiter in public behind a pillar.
Musicologist Louise Eulau’s meticulous 2018 catalog of Bergman’s large record collection lists Ralph Kirkpatrick’s Goldberg Variations of 1957 (the one heard in the film) among his holdings, alongside much other Bach (including now fewer than five complete recordings of the St. Matthew Passion). Eulau tells us that the second side of the Goldberg LP (on which is heard the twenty-fifth variation) showed the marks of the turntable spindle on the disc’s paper label. Bergman played this recorded many times.
Here’s betting that if and when Bach’s music was heard in the Bergman boudoir with one or more of the many actresses he bedded alongside, it was not put on to enhance the erotic ambience. Even the Goldberg Variations—aside from the mournful number excerpted in The Silence, one of the Bach’s most physically playful works—served Bergman as music of the mind not the body.