The Silence (2010)

16 December 2011

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Directed and scripted by Swiss filmmaker Baran bo Odan from Jan Costin Wagner's 2007 novel, The Silence stylishly blends mystery and drama as it evokes two different timeframes in rural Germany: a hot, 1986 summer, in which a young girl named Pia is raped and murdered whilst riding her bicycle through a wheat field, and, 23 years later, when another girl goes missing in identical circumstances. Told from the point of view of perpetrators, investigating detectives and the parents of both victims, it's a multi-threaded narrative vaguely reminiscent of 2003's Lantana, with its focus on the changing intimacies of a small community whose dormant traumas, both individual and collective, are brought forth.

Solid but never excellent, the film boasts individual strengths greater than its sum. Its ensemble cast is talented and well chosen: Ulrich Thomsen, Burghart Klaussner, Katrin Sass and Sebastian Blomberg are all familiar faces, while Jule Böwe, Wotan Wilke Möhring and Claudia Michelsen complete an impressive and varied range of performers. Nikolaus Summerer provides fine, effective cinematography, as characters sweat under the tense heat of intrigue and summer. Since the cinematography remains fairly consistent across the two timelines, the responsibility of differentiating between them is immaculately and economically handled by production and costume design.

In story terms, The Silence demands a subdued and somber approach, presenting as it does several different strands in which not much if any comic relief is to be found: the ostensible protagonist is David Jahn (Blomberg), the policeman supported by pregnant colleague Jana (Böwe) and helped by just-retired mentor Krischan (Klaussner) who must face the crippling bureaucratic obstacles of his own profession and the lingering grief over the loss of his wife to cancer months earlier. Parallel to this investigating trio are the parents of the girl currently missing and the mother of the 1986 victim (Sass).

The central undercurrent of the film, which grows in significance as its story develops, is the relationship between Peer (Thomsen), the janitor of a low-rise apartment building overlooking a children's playground, and Timo (Möhring), a married father who descends despondently into a guilt-ridden silence following the news of the present-day case whose details recall the '86 case; we infer early on that Timo was the silent witness-cum-accomplice in that murder. Having evaded detection hitherto, Timo suspects Peer has murdered again only so that the two can regain contact with one another.

This kind of material is all very serious, and requires a great deal of subtlety and skill to interweave its various episodes without falling prone to farce. As such, the film is an ambitious effort to deal simultaneously with guilt, responsibility, sadness, loss, secrets and lies and all those other dramatic pulls. But it feels condensed and trim, never quite getting to the heart of its respective elements with enough punch to make it feel worthwhile as a whole. Its characters, all competing for our attention, are stereotypes unable to transcend the coincidental plotting in which they appear. The film cuts too many corners to make clear that serious things are happening and that we have to care about the people caught up in them.

Unfortunately, the film is largely mannerist, its multiple tragedies appearing inconsequential when they're supposed to be devastating, a result perhaps of too large an emphasis on atmosphere and mystery instead of plain-speaking situations. The film wants it both ways: telling us from the outset who killed Pia, but keeping from us who it is precisely who killed another girl 23 years later. As for the immediate victims themselves, they're fodder for the central relationship between two troubled, lonely ciphers; the inclusion of their respective parents seems perfunctory and distracting.

Comparisons have been made to Danish TV series The Killing, but The Silence is limited by its two-hour duration. Its attempt to stir audience curiosity in a whodunit and maintain its interest in the more emotional consequences of a murder (times two) - both at the same time as asking for trust in a needlessly contrived narrative whose disclosure of information is uneven throughout - is subsequently jarring, despite several powerful moments in which the absorbing performances are allowed to take hold of a scene. An example of this, one that provides the film with a climax of sorts, is when Jahn confronts a superior officer who's determined to close the case as solved, even though evidence suggests the actual culprit is still at large; the scene unfolds over several heightened minutes and the whole thing is shot in one take. But this kind of investment in character is done too rarely in the film, whose more sincere and interesting elements are too often rendered of secondary importance to slow-motion montages-to-music and the quicker thrills of cross-cutting.

Ps. There's an interesting, lengthy interview with the director at Michael Guillen's blog The Evening Class.