The ugliest parts of human behavior are often on display in cinema. Artists and audiences alike — though perhaps more the former than the latter, to look at box office returns — feel drawn by the worst in us. Safe in dark theaters, we contemplate horrors and root for the heroes caught up in them. And we hope for directors who can use striking visual language to build some meaningful commentary on the most rotten moral foundations. You have to be an absolute believer in the communicative and political power of cinema to watch a movie about murdered children and sift its frames for something more than macabre titillation.
That requirement is more critical than usual for Baran bo Odar’s The Silence. The Swiss writer-director’s film is beautifully executed, but punishing in its every detail. Twenty-three years after a girl was killed, another abandoned bicycle appears in the same spot in the same field, another pair of parents are left to agonize, and another set of cops set about the hunt. There is little physical violence in the film, but an inexhaustible supply of emotional carnage. “Depressing” ain’t the half of it.
The Silence opens with a still shot of a residential balcony, all tans and blues and right angles, with a massive, distorted, deep electronic sound putting the viewer instantly on edge. Cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer’s camera zooms slowly in on the sharp metal corners of the mail slot, before Odar cuts to the interior of the apartment. Two men are watching a projector showing a young, frightened girl. Suddenly the cuts become rapid, the shots come at hard angles to one another, and you sense that you should be grateful for the sudden distortion of time and space. Filled with dark energy, the two men depart (shown in a straight-down shot of their red car backing out of a garage into a cramped driveway, the shot full of the same harsh, square geometry).
Later, they separate, the passenger horrified at what he’s just watched and encouraged the driver to do. And 23 years later, young Sinikka Weghamm (Anna-Lena Klenke) meets the same fate, in the same field, after fighting with her parents and being stood up by friends and deciding to bike back home. If The Silence were a grindhouse flick, the implications of the fight with her parents would be unacceptably regressive: Sinikka tells her father to “fuck off,” he starts after her, and her mother stops him. But Odar’s movie isn’t about the kind of simplistic moral calculus that B horror flicks use to frame their gore as judgment. It’s about how appearances deceive, and how good intentions are insufficient for the righting of wrongs.
The visual language Odar and Summerer employ is unmistakable: characters and places are defined either with rigorously angular, boxy shapes in the frames around them, or by the messiness of their personal presentation. By and by, the filmmakers elaborate upon the suggestion in the opening sequence that the squared-away order in which central antagonist Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) lives is a mask. Elena (Katrin Sass), the mother of the first victim, has preserved her daughter’s bedroom exactly as it was when she disappeared. It is fastidious, and Elena’s relationship with this organic shrine to her dead girl’s prim, organized, angular goodness is complicated and painful. Sinikka’s home is shown first in interiors, with the same scheme of corners and blunt geometry, and it’s only after she’s disappeared that we see the house from outside: It sits, for all its rectangles and clean lines, beside a mini-mountain of torn dirt, and a yard full of haphazard construction equipment.
Another thing you might have to believe to enjoy The Silence: Hope and uplift in such stories is just a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. There is little of either to be had in the detectives’ pursuit of the killer, although some seems to come by way of Peer’s one-time accomplice Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring). His fierce internal wrestling after Peer’s message to his lost “friend” — delivered via news footage of Sinikka’s disappearance in that familiar field — shakes up the family and life he’s made for himself 23 years on. But Timo’s response is a poor excuse for redemption. Odar executes that internal struggle wonderfully, and Mohring does excellent, haunted work. So, too, does Sebastian Blomberg, as Inspector David Jahn, a widowed, sweat-soaked, unshaven ghost of a man who is alone among his colleagues in being more interested in getting the case right than in getting it off the books. Odar introduces these several sets of initially disparate characters — mothers and cops and killers — and braids them together gracefully. But he uses the resulting rope not to pull his audience up out of the darkness, but to strangle us in it.