138. Ingmar Bergman’s Metaphysical Reduction, Part 3: The Silence

In May 1963, the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) retrospectively described his films Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence as a trilogy with a theme:

“The theme of these three films is a ‘reduction’ – in the metaphysical sense of the word.

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY – certainty achieved.

WINTER LIGHT – certainty unmasked.

THE SILENCE – God’s silence – the negative impression.”

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions about the most general and fundamental nature of reality. Thus Bergman’s trilogy appears to slowly yet radically reduce the real presence of God in the lives of his characters. And this reduction, which mirrors Bergman’s own religious crisis and turn to atheism, offers us profound insights into God, our relation to God, and, especially, love and its negation. In the first post of this series we considered Through a Glass Darkly (see here) in which the love from God – or the love between humans that is God – can emerge even out of absolute despair to heal various forms of human alienation and illness. In the second post (see here) we considered Winter Light which, on the one hand, unmasks both divine and human love as something far more problematic and, on the other hand, offers some hope for both. Now let’s take a look at The Silence (1963) which reduces this hope even further. We will see that the film suggests we all have a choice, even in the most terrible of circumstances, to either reach out of ourselves and make contact with others or close ourselves off. If this is the case then the film is not necessarily reducing God out of existence. Rather, it may be suggesting that the the silencing of love, goodness, beauty, and truth in ourselves and others prevents us from hearing what God says. All screenplay quotations, which can differ slightly from the films and their various translations, will be from the book Three Films by Ingmar Bergman, translated by Paul Britten Austin (New York: Grove Press, 1967).


Here is a brief synopsis of the film: “Esther [played by Ingrid Thulin] and Anna [played by Gunnel Lindblom], possibly sisters, are returning from a holiday with Anna’s young son, Johan [played by Jörgen Lindström]. They pause in a city somewhere in Eastern Europe named Timoka, where they cannot understand the language, and where tanks rumble ominously through the streets. Anna, frustrated, has sex with a barman in a hotel room, and then leaves the city with Johan, while an ailing Ester remains confined to her bed” (The Ingmar Bergman Archives, Taschen Publishing, p. 284). As you can see from this summary, not a lot happens as far as traditional plot lines are concerned. But this is appropriate for a film about the breakdown of human communication and meaning. Bergman once said that the whole film, rather than any particular scene, “must have the character of a dream.” I think the disorienting discontinuities of the film express this character well. We feel like anything can suddenly lead to anything else (here we should recall Minus’ statement in “Through a Glass darkly”: “Reality burst and I fell out. It’s like a dream, though real. Anything can happen – anything Daddy!). For example, Ester experiences sudden convulsions that take her break away and interrupt whatever she is doing; Anna periodically leaves the hotel preventing interaction with her child and sister; and Johan wanders around the desolate hotel playing hide and seek with odd people and encountering perplexing things. The world outside the hotel adds to the discontinuity: a tank suddenly appears, rolls down the street, and is gone; foreboding yet unknown sounds come and go as quickly as they came; and the unknown language prevents any comprehension of the din. This dreamlike uncertainty has its own unique form of dramatic tension and release outside the confines normal plot development. It also has its own form of despair. As we saw above, Bergman claimed the film gives a negative impression of God’s silence. One might interpret this as follows: God’s presence would presumably provide meaning, continuity, integration, intimacy, and, of course, love. Given the amount of discontinuity in the film, we can’t help but see the characters in a hell of stifling heat and demonic isolation (for more on discontinuity and the demonic, see here). Bergman, commenting on the characters of the trilogy, said:

“My basic concern in making them [the three films of the metaphysical reduction] was to dramatize the all-importance of communication, of the capacity for feeling. They are not concerned – as many critics have theorized – with God or his absence, but with the saving force of love. Most of the people in these films are dead, completely dead. They don’t know how to love or feel any emotions. They are lost because they can’t reach out to anyone outside of themselves.” (The Ingmar Bergman Archives, Taschen Publishing, p. 319).

But given the thesis that God is love and love is God, a thesis so central to both Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, I think we can see the inability to love as the absence of God. It is not surprising that in “The Silence” God is barely mentioned and the human love which may be God – a love experienced in Through a Glass Darkly and potentially still alive in Winter Light – struggles to even make an appearance. The estranged sisters do communicate some of their issues with each other. But the dialogue never lasts long: communication breaks down and Anna typically ends up leaving the sickly Ester alone in bed to suffer. And Johan is caught between the sisters seeking affection and attention. Towards the end of the movie, not unlike a thunderstorm finally releasing the stifling humidity of a scorching summer day, Esther and Anna finally have an explosive exchange that appears to be a cathartic opportunity for growth. But, predictably, nothing comes of it except silence. Let’s take a closer look.

In this scene Ester has engaged her morbid preoccupation with Anna’s sexuality by listening at the door of the room in which Anna is engaging yet again in her sexual escapism. Aware of Ester’s presence at the door, Anna arranges for Ester to come in with the lights out and then, suddenly, turns on a lamp so Ester can see Anna in bed with her foreign, silent lover. Anna relishes the revelation and goes on to criticize Ester’s self-important need to make everything “a matter of life and death”, “meaningful” and “significant” as their late father did. Anna admits she used to look up to Ester but now realizes that Ester dislikes her and always has. Ester disagrees and claims she loves Anna. But Anna refuses to believe it. Consider these passages from the screenplay and note how Bergman’s directions reveal a terrible silence that seeps into the dialogue, threatens it, and eventually consumes it:

Anna: You’re always talking about love.

Ester: You mustn’t say…

Anna: What mustn’t I say? That Ester hates. That’s just a silly invention of silly Anna. You hate me, just like you hate yourself. And me. And everything that’s mine. You’re full of hate.

Ester: You’ve got it all wrong.

Anna: You who’re so intelligent, who’ve taken so many exams and translated so many books, can you answer me just one thing? (Pause) When father died you said: “Now I don’t want to live any longer.” Well, why do you live, then?

Ester: (doesn’t reply)

Anna: For my sake? For Johan? (Pause) For your work, perhaps? (Pause) Or for nothing in particular?

A long silence.

Ester: It’s not as you say. I’m sure you’re wrong.

Anna: (screams) Stop it! Drop that tone of voice!

Ester: (doesn’t reply)

Anna: (screams) Go away! Get out! Leave me alone!

Ester has been sitting looking down. No she raises her head and contemplates her sister. 

Ester: Poor Anna.

Anna: Can’t you be quiet!

There are plenty of other communication breakdowns in the film. They all play into Bergman’s metaphysical reduction leaving us with what appears to be a God-forsaken world in which various forms of escapism, hedonism, violence, sadism, and masochism reign supreme.


But it turns out there is hope to be found amidst the silence and the silencing – we just have to look more carefully than we did in Winter Light. Here are some examples that suggest ways of dealing with meaninglessness in our own lives. One might take them together as an argument for the value of the humanities:

(1) Young Johan, in his exploration of the desolate hotel, comes upon a large painting by Rubens entitled Deianeira Abducted by Nessus. The painting depicts the centaur Nessus attempting to seduce Hercules’ wife Deianeira while ferrying her across the Euenos river. According to mythology, Nessus tried to rape her in midstream causing Heracles to shoot a poison arrow into his heart. But in Ruben’s painting the violence is more implied then explicit. This leaves room for interpretation and Johan is, to be sure, too young to decipher the full mythological context. But he seems to be intuitively aware of something and this something brings him back to take another look. We know from an earlier conversation that he is afraid of horses and later in the film he sees his sensual and sexual mom entering a room with a stranger to have sex. Clearly Johan is becoming aware of the power of eros and his engagement with the painting reflects this growing awareness. So visual art can be a vehicle for meaning even in the midst of a disintegrated world.

(2) But it is not just visual art that makes an appearance in The Silence – it is music as well. At one point in the film Anna goes to a cafe and attempts to read a newspaper. All but the words ‘J.S. Bach’ are decipherable. Later in the film, Ester is able to tune into some of Bach’s music on a radio which she and the waiter enjoy. Consider this exchange which portrays music’s ability to overcome firm linguistic barriers:

Ester (in a low voice): What’s it called. MUSIC?

Waiter (smiles): Music-musike! Music-musike.

Ester: Sebastian Bach?

Waiter (pleased): Sebastian Bach. (Nods emphatically) Johann Sebastian Bach.

Then Johan and Anna enter and Anna asks: “What music is that?” She enjoys the music as well. For a moment the characters are all directing their consciousness to the beauty of the music and have a shared world untouched by their personal issues. Unfortunately, it is a short moment since Anna switches the music off leaving, as Bergman writes in the screenplay, “a hostile silence”. But it is a moment in which beauty enters the room despite the ongoing alienation.

(3) There are a few moments of human kindness, intimacy and joy in the film that we shouldn’t overlook. The waiter kindly tends to Ester throughout the film and stands by her even when she has convulsions. Of course, he can only do so much; but he cares. The waiter also makes an effort to play wth Johan and, in a deeply moving yet perplexing scene, shows Johan a picture which appears to be himself as young boy at his mother’s funeral. Regardless of what the picture signifies, it is an attempt to be intimate with the boy and make a human connection. Unfortunately, here, too, the intimate moment ceases: the waiter is called to duty and Johan hides the picture under the carpet to, perhaps, silence the loss. But the gesture for intimacy was there. We also see that Ester is kind to Johan who, in turn, becomes more intimate with her as the film proceeds. At one point Johan responds to Ester’s suffering by saying “don’t worry, mommy will be back soon and I am here”. And we mustn’t overlook the wonderful scene where Johan encounters a troupe of dwarfs staying in the hotel who quickly and quietly dress Johan up and begin to act out, dance, etc. Predictably, this joyous scene is interrupted by the boss of the troupe entering the room, yelling, and demanding that the dwarves get back to work. But the joyful, spontaneous moment occurred despite the harsh silencing. So human acts of kindness and joy can occur even in deplorable conditions. 

(4) Even Anna’s debauchery – her having sex with a stranger both publicly and in the midst of her sister’s presence – has a psychological meaning far past mere escapism. According to Ester, it is a kind of revenge. As she says when she encounters Anna and her lover in bed, “Why’ve you got to revenge yourself all the time?” Here we should be reminded of David’s vision of love from Through a Glass Darkly. Recall that David’s hope rested in “the knowledge that love exists as something real in the world of men.” And all love, from the most ridiculous to the most sublime, is to be included. Indeed, all longing for love and even every denial of love is included as well. Once we recall these points, we can see how we can include, on the one hand, Anna’s seedy erotic adventures and, on the other hand, her effort to deny Ester any sexual relation with her. Both these examples fall within the orbit of David’s vision of God’s love as love between people. Human love is messy, full of failures, marked by cruel denials, and so on. But how could we understand such messy denials and failures if there wasn’t real love to begin with? I think this approach of interpreting The Silence in light of David’s inclusive vision of love allows us to see, contrary to Bergman, how well the films hang together as a trilogy.

(5) But the real hope of the film, as many have pointed out, lies in Johan’s overall curiosity. Bergman expresses this curiosity by showing how Johan, along with his interest in the painting and the people in the hotel, is interested in deciphering the language of the city. The interest is there is the opening scene when he tries to decipher some words in the train and it is there at the end when Ester, herself a translator, gives a final gift to Johan: a set of words she was able to translate. She passes on her love of retrieving meaning to Johan (and probably wants to make a copy of herself that will torment Anna for the rest of her life). Johan, as Bergman noted, “escapes the film almost unscathed. And all the time he feels a certain curiosity. Starts seeing his mother a bit more objectively, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. If he sees her clearly for the first time, it’s because he sides with Ester” (The Ingmar Bergman Archives, Taschen Publishing, p. 308).

Given these examples, I think the silence of the third stage of Bergman’s reduction takes on a very different meaning. Could it be that the silence is less a function of an indifferent God and more a function of humans silencing love, goodness, beauty, and truth in themselves and others? In the above examples we saw how opportunities for continuity and meaning were cut short due to human intervention. To be sure, it is not easy to be open to transcendence when conditions are deplorable. But in Through a Glass Darkly we saw how David, in experiencing the nothingness that lead him to attempt suicide, suddenly felt God’s love. In The Silence there are also gifts that appear to shine from the nothingness. But Anna shuts off the music – she chooses not to listen. And Ester, rather than taking any responsibility for her condescension to and jealousy of Anna, chooses to perpetuate them and run away into her booze and chain smoking. We should probably connect these acts of silencing with a profound lack of gratitude, a theme Bergman so beautiful explored in films such as Cries and Whispers.

Johan, however, remains curious, caring, and thoughtful. Thus I think The Silence suggests we all have a choice, even in the most terrible of circumstances, to either reach out of ourselves or close ourselves off. Perhaps we all have a part of ourselves that, like Ester, wants to make everything so meaningful that we seek perfection, deny our messy bodies and relationships, and get lost in abstract ideals and barren intellectual pursuits. Perhaps we all have an inner Anna who could care less about transcendent ideals and wants to relish the pleasures of the flesh and live in the moment. And perhaps we all have Johan’s curiosity despite our burdensome adult concerns. When times are tough we may find ourselves confronted with a false dilemma symbolized by the stalemate between the sisters: either the world is full of meaning as Ester wants to see it or it is a place where ideals are to be mocked and replaced with a vulgar hedonism. Bergman’s film helps us see another option: meaning, ideals, love, and so on need not be perfect to exist. What is needed, however, is Johan’s curiosity to realize them. This curiosity, as we have seen, can be enhanced with art, music, the study of language, and uncommon human interactions of all sorts. It can help us engage in self-examination. And it can help us remain open to the emotions and ideas of others. All these gifts of curiosity can help us negotiate conflicts with intelligence and compassion. “The Silence” offers us an opportunity to identify with Johan’s curiosity in order to make a more meaningful and, perhaps, lovable world. Of course, it is unclear, after all the illness, despair, and moral vice Bergman’s reduction has shown us about ourselves, that such a world would be one in which God exists. But if God exists then making the choice to act more humanely towards ourselves and others might allow us to hear what He has to say.

For my post on Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, go here.

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