Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ingmar Bergman's The Silence (1963)

Originally written on 02.17.2010

There is transcendent silence or God.  There is immanent silence or breakdown of communication, abandonment and loneliness.  There is distant silence or desire for recognition.  There is imminent silence or death, as well as life (and politically, the fatal logic of war).  There is transcendental silence or human love. 

Though silent, God is not altogether absent in the film.  It can be interpreted that God is manifested in the tender moments of caring love between the characters - between the old attendant and Ester, between Johan and others.  God can be interpreted as an attendant and a sort of timekeeper, a witness to life and death, but also a foreigner to the existential meaning of human life and death, and of God.  Bergman also alludes to God with (sun)light, which is both cruel and kind (Anna avoids heat and light, whereas Johan is drawn to and gently illuminated by it).  There is also an apophatic allusion to God with the painting of the satyr and the nymph which catches Johan's eye (the painting is a harbinger for the "primal scene" of his catching his mother kissing her lover) as well as with the rain Anna douses herself with in the final scene, an anti-baptism.

The city is a topsy turvy world, a living hell, a place of absolute anonymity as well as wantonness.  The dwarfs who are the most "well-adjusted" people in the film are an oblique ironic comment about this inhuman world.  The junk wagon drawn by a corpselike horse and the tank signify a certain doom, an end of the human.  The horse-drawn junk wagon also serves as a counterpoint - it signifies a final judgment, barren existence or the bare soul.  The foreign city like the Freudian Uncanny is also a picture of the characters' repressions of the Id.  The foreign reality can also be interpreted as the Real, a break from and in the Symbolic.  Most interpretations focus on the breakdown or the impossibility of communication between the characters, notably between Anna and Ester.  However, there is an unspoken understanding between Anna and Ester.  Each senses thus understands the other as the antithesis (carnal vs. cerebral, etc), as representation.  However, each does not know the other's true face, does not recognize the other as a whole - there is understanding but not truth.  It is implied Anna habitually lies to Ester.  Also, one can even say that there is only "communication" when there is no communication.  That is, both Anna to her lover and Ester to the attendant as well as in her prayer (which is to her mother rather than God) confess the truth to a silent interlocutor - there is truth but not understanding.  There is no "translation" between understanding and truth.  The only moment of true recognition is not through speech but music, when Ester and the attendant agree on Bach.  Translation becomes the leitmotif of the difficulty of communication if not the misdirection of speech.  In order to know the most basic things (hand, face, well as the person's soul), speech and understanding must be (re)translated somehow into recognition and truth.  Translation is also a ciphering, that is, a sort of forgetfulness of experience.  This forgetfulness or "innocence" is paradoxically exhibited in Johan, who becomes a site of memory and equivocality.  Translation is imagining the truth of experience of what remains "foreign" or other.

Bergman beautifully captures the personalities of the characters with their individual perspectives on external reality.  Anna is the narcissistic gaze, which is emphasized by mirrors.  Ester is the voyeuristic gaze, looking out windows or onto the other suite (one is reminded at times of Velázquez's famous painting Las Meninas via the inversion of its perspective).  And Johan is the Imaginary gaze, as well as the onlooker of the "primal scene" which overwrites the Imaginary with the Symbolic.  With the (ap)perception of abandonment, there is a certain "death," Johan turns from a certain undifferentiated innocence to a certain divided experience.  With alienation, he goes from being the autoerotic and alloerotic self to being an aporetic subject.  Also, he jumps from the desire of the Other's desire (the sensual sphere of his mother) to the desire separated from the Other's desire (the supersensible stratum of undying love).  A mutual recognition of some kind (even a togetherness in loss and loneliness) between Ester and Johan is implied.  At the end, Johan is shown raptly wondering at Ester's letter, as if trying to decipher some imminent spiritual revelation.  The hotel itself becomes a sort of topography of ego formation, notably Johan's.  It is a wonderland as well as a traumatic site, a conflation of heaven and hell.  For the others, it is a place where Id overtakes Superego, and also where Thanatos overtakes Eros.  If keeping to an oppositional schema, it can be interpreted that Anna represents the pleasure principle and that Ester represents the reality principle or even the death drive.  However, Anna can be interpreted as both the pleasure principle and the death drive - forces of the Id.  She is possessed by the Id - she has illicit sex and she wishes for her sister's death (and her promiscuous sex educes Ester's feelings of betrayal which quicken death).  In a way, she barely has an "ego" - her care for Johan is merely an extension of her narcissism, and she feels smothered by Ester's superegoic perfectionism.  In fact, Anna refuses discourse with Ester - the Real puts a stop to Symbolic functioning.  And Ester, her angst can be attributed to the denial of the death drive - she drinks, smokes, and works to disavow her illness and moreso she expresses horror of dying, its "eternity."  Also, Ester's superegoic perfectionism is shown to be empty, a front.  And her unanswered prayer with impending death puts into doubt the absolute superego, God.  Ester is not merely the frigid sister, the absolute opposite of sensuality - she yearns for intimacy with Anna and Johan but can only express her desires indirectly.  As Ester's spying shows, her neurosis verges on possessiveness.  Curiously, if there is any superegoic figure in the film, it is the least overbearing one - the attendant, for the most part watchful, punctual and caring.  In a world that is out of joint, he speaks the most humanism, though that speech is a foreign one. 

The shots of hands especially and affectionate touching are rather profound.  There is that one beautiful scene when Johan smells Anna after scrubbing her back when she is taking a bath.  Moreover, there is the scene of Ester gently touching Anna and Johan as they sleep, or the one of Johan observing Ester's hands.  Relatedly, "hand" is the first word that is translated by the attendant.  Corporality itself becomes a sort of hieroglyph - that is, it needs to be (re)translated.  Separated from the burdened soul and its speech, it is as if the body and its touch return to innocence.  The soul stripped bare thus purged of its derangements becomes then the locus of love.