Our first glance at this film suggests incomprehensibility: two blonde women in their thirties and a small, equally blond boy are training to parts unknown from parts unknown; the heat is unbearable in the compartment; outside, a single file of tanks parallels the train's progress; and on the compartment door sits a sign in a language that no one, including the viewer, has ever seen before. Soon one of the women will get violently ill, the three of them will disembark, and our action – if that is really the right word – will be moved to a hotel in a very foreign city, a subdued metropolis from every indication on the brink of war.
We learn in time that the two women, Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), are sisters; the boy, Johan, is Anna's, although from how Johan interacts with his aunt, it is clear that she exerts considerable influence upon him. Like many siblings, Ester and Anna go out of their way to emphasize their differences. While the older Ester is lonely, cultured, and intellectual (she works as a literary translator), a raging alcoholic, and probably a manic depressive to boot, Anna is decidedly none of the above. In fact, what Anna is and is not made The Silence, at the time of its release, a revelatory picture, even if the revelations seem tepid and stale in hindsight – but first we must return to that train. An internet search for "Nitsel stantnjon palik," the train door sign, yields links exclusively on The Silence, which means that we are dealing with invention. (An educated guess might be "no smoking when in the station" since palić is "to smoke" in Polish, the middle word resembles a misbegotten calque of "station," and the first word could be a Slavic homophone of "incomplete" – "smoking [is allowed] not having reached the station.") Two later words – and words will be very important in a film that underscores soundlessness – kasi ("hand") and naigo ("face") appear to be Estonian. So when, in a fabulous scene, Anna opens up a newspaper knowing full well she'll only be able to look at the pictures, all the words seem familiar in a sense that they might be words from various European tongues. Someone more politically sensitive than I would avouch that this means all of Europe is at war, Babel as a metaphor for battle, but I refrain. What the language isolate does imply, however, is the need for non-verbal communication, gestures, looks, and, of course, the other senses: smells, tastes, and whatever can be deemed tactile. During the course of the film, both Ester and Anna will maintain a relationship with a male waiter – Ester with the hotel's old and attentive servant, Anna with a libidinous young man from a street café – with whom she does not share a language. Nevertheless, both women are convinced of the significance of each relationship and are pleased at the distance the lack of language permits them ("How nice that we don't understand one another," says Anna to her partner).
Why do they need that distance? That is the mystery of The Silence, one of the few first-rate films that become more obfuscated, not clearer, upon re-viewing. This ambiguity, I fear, is predominantly caused by modern minds who are hell-bent on seeing things in the worst or, rather, most sinful or crooked way possible (an inevitability Bergman appears to anticipate). Thus the most popular and incorrect explanation of The Silence is provoked by Anna's brief visit to a movie theater in which she happens to catch a man and woman coupling vigorously and obliviously. As if, one might venture, Anna were not there at all – the very act of cinematography. Other scenes seem to point in the same, bawdy direction, but actually do no such thing: a bathing scene in which Anna asks Johan to lather her back – there is no other person to ask but Ester, who is both incapacitated and, as we will learn, unwilling; Anna's decision to sleep topless next to her ten-year-old son, who has seen her thus since, well, the very beginning of their relationship; Anna's sessions with the waiter, who craved her the moment he saw her open that local newspaper and understand absolutely nothing; in one amazing scene, Anna's walking through the streets for almost a minute and being surrounded only by men; and the rather weighty dialogue towards the film's middle, when Anna and Ester bicker like jealous lovers. The sexual undercurrent seems even more important given its notoriety as the first major Swedish film to feature a gamut of risqué scenes, but such silliness need not concern us here. What we can say about these vignettes is that they are in line with the plot: they are neither gratuitous nor somehow stylized to invoke greater meaning (when there exists nothing of the sort). In point of fact, if we accept ten-year-old Johan as the film's true protagonist, then these discoveries abate drastically in sensation, because, of course, all such moments are sensational to a budding adolescent.
Accept Johan as the protagonist? Most certainly: Bergman has been labeled the most autobiographical of directors for good reason, as his stories are about individual doubts, not wars of ideas in which individuals are conscripted. His heroes struggle with faith like the Romantic poets struggled with love: in each case this represented the most elusive and vital element of life. And like the Romantic poets approached love in myriad ways, with poem after poem dedicated to one or another princesse lointaine, so did Bergman address the serious questions about his Christianity by examining it through individual perspectives that all funneled back into him. As a ten-year-old, Johan's faith begins and perhaps ends with his mother and aunt, and he is hopeful to "return home" to his grandmother (some mention is made of his father, but the latter is clearly not much involved); yet something inside him does allow for the contemplation of a large and fleshy painting in the style of this artist. Walking the halls of the surprisingly grand, if empty, hotel, he comes upon a troupe of dwarfs, who do not imbue him with the same feelings of awkwardness as they would an adult. The titular silence then becomes what is never said to a child, what is withheld, omitted, censored, or distorted, all in the name of protecting him, of maintaining his innocence in a world racked by war, pornography, alcoholism, and hatred. He gazes through the window one evening to see a tank occupying the entire street, like the tanks he spotted from the train, a little boy's dream and a father's nightmare. It is through Johan's eyes that we notice the different ways in which his mother and aunt comb their hair and regard themselves in mirrors; it is also of little coincidence that Johan is reading this book in Swedish translation. After all, little boys love adventures about much bigger boys who get in and out of danger. But who, sooner or later, make it back home to grandma's house.