Ingmar Bergman (1963)
Why Silence Can Be Loud & Lonely

Silence isn’t always golden. Not in Ingmar Bergman’s book. And, his various film treatises on silence speak to us loudly on many planes of emotional existence, and those planes are never smooth. Of course, silence can provide a necessary space for personal truths to appear. For imaginings to ripen and take hold. Or, a respite from parents’ demands or fighting. We’ve grown used to the railings against a silent God that refuses to answer in The Seventh Seal (1958), Through A Glass Darkly (1961), and Winter’s Light (1962). But not, ironically, in The Silence. Instead, Bergman gives us silence filled with embattled emotions – pressing to take over or be heard. And, in the center is loneliness.

Loneliness is the face of Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). A young boy. Riding on a train. Lost in the presence of a silent mother and sick aunt. They are lonely too; sisters; isolated, angry, and alienated from each other and themselves. But, it’s Johan, especially who brings us the lonely landscape not being seen by your mother inflicts.

A serious boy. A stony-preoccupied-faced mom. An aunt (his mother’s sister) on the verge of dying. And, a hotel steward, obsequious, helpful, strange and a bit scary to a boy. He doesn’t speak their language. But, no one (except it seems the steward) speaks the language of feeling or grief. It’s all kept inside the body or acted in sexual trysts.

The film is dark and heavy. We sense no happiness. Or real warmth. The boy watches. Waits. To be noticed. And, loved. Such waiting makes for a lonely world. In The Silence, Bergman has created four different characters –  2 sisters, Ester and Anna, Anna’s young son, Johan, and the hotel steward – lonely for their own reasons. With their loneliness expressed in distinct and silent ways.

The Silence &4 Faces Of Loneliness

The Silence (1963) is the last of Bergman’s trilogy, beginning with Through a Glass Darkly (1961), then, Winter Light (1962), and ending with The Silence (1963). “Bergman began work on the third part of the trilogy, ‘The Silence’ (‘Tystnaden’), at Christmas 1961, as soon as he had completed ‘Winter Light.'” (Cowie, p. 211.)

The Silence (1963), unlike the others, is true to what Bergman muses to his cinematographer Sven Nykvist: ‘The film itself must have the character of a dream.” (Ibid., p. 211.) And, in Taschen (p. 306), clearly and poignantly, he says: “The Silence is a journey of imagination.” What does the film “imagine” and bring to a painfully revealing light?

Loneliness. Plain and simple. In all of loneliness’s complexities.

Yes, loneliness, has many causes. And, there are just as many reasons that loneliness becomes a prison that can seem impossible to escape. In The Silence, Bergman gives us four different faces of loneliness and four different ways of managing it – in Johan, Anna, Ester, and the hotel steward. Grief in one form or another is at the heart of it all.

Grief – unexpressed or unrealized for what it is – produces symptoms. Those symptoms can be as varied as the lonely people we come to know – and there are at least four divergent signs of loneliness in The Silence. The tragedy is that no one seems to escape.

Will Johan? Maybe. He’s young. Curious. Observant. Caring. But, he’s not off to a good start. All depends upon the various either fortunate or unfortunate experiences and people his life’s path will cross. Johan, in The Silence, is Bergman’s alter-ego. He seems always to have one in his films; his own odysseys of soul searching self-discovery.

Johan: An Unreachable Mother

On the train, Johan watches the country go by. He watches his mother. His aunt. Later, the old butler/hotel steward at the nearly empty hotel. The performing troop of little people that have a kind of vibrancy and playfulness not familiar to him. He watches, takes everything in. Plays alone. Tries to entertain himself with his lonely imagination.

Occasionally, his mother, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), needs him. When she does, he might scrub her back, receive a preoccupied kiss. A small offering of affection. That is before she runs off in search of a man. Sex. To hide away from her own loneliness.

Seeking empty pleasures.

Johan’s loneliness is the centerpiece of The Silence. The weather is sweltering and humid; close and uncomfortable; Anna just wants to sleep. Johan wants to play, tries to rouse his mother – who pushes him away. We see how this stirs anger; a quiet rebellion that Johan keeps close to his vest; shooting at chandeliers with his toy gun.

Or blowing rudely at the hotel steward (Håkan Jahnberg). The anger; for the ways, he’s ignored; smoldering embers waiting for a chance to ignite. Not towards his beloved mother though. Can’t risk being deprived of the little attentions she at times turns towards him. The steward laughs. Kind, he scares Johan. As Johan’s anger does him.

Johan tries to entertain himself in the nearly empty old hotel in a foreign city; not home. Slides down banisters. Lets the midget troop dress him up in a monkey costume until their manager shoos him away. Anna, his mother, washes her large breasts, preparing to go out on the town. Unconcerned with Johan’s whereabouts.

Johan is left with worries. Worries that are overlooked.

Worries Of A Lonely Boy

A lonely ignored boy has lots of worries that no-one sees. His sick aunt worries him. But, at least she tries to talk to him: “Why doesn’t Mama want to be with me?” “She does.” “No, she leaves whenever she can.” Children know when they’re in the way. Not wanted. Ester (Ingrid Thulin) dismisses his feelings; just as she does her own.

“Will we go to Grandma’s? How long?” “Summer and winter. You’ll go to school there.” “Will Mama come to visit.” “I expect.” Johan doesn’t expect anything of the sort. He knows better.  About his father too: “Papa?” “He’s very busy.” “I know.” Yes, he knows all too well that he’s a child that his parents won’t and don’t make time for; push away.

Yet, he reassures the sick Ester (just as he tries to comfort himself): “You don’t have to worry. Mama will be back soon. Anyway, I’m here.” That’s what he must do. Be a little grown-up. Be there for himself. And, Ester too. A shut out boy, he draws pictures for Ester. Black scribbles. The darkness of anxiety; of abandonment and neglect.

He’s given very little by his mother, and he asks for nothing. He’s learned well what is expected. He waits. Watches. Gives what is asked of him. He’s there for her; jumping when he’s needed. But, she isn’t there, for him. Turns her back with her sultry pouting. She’s seductive. Confuses him. Makes him wait in long empty spaces of time. Alone.

Sisters: Different & The Same

They look like polar opposites. Anna – sensual, sexual, lasciviously hungry and not caring what man/stranger she turns to in her starvation. Ester – starving too, but denying any need. In control. In her head. Using her intellect to reject desires for sex or love. Her body is rebelling now, as she’s rebelled against anything to do with feeling.

Johan, in the middle of it all, is the equivalent of where it starts. Early. There’s no question that the two sisters must have existed in a family that didn’t recognize them either; not as feeling children. Vying for; competing; jealous of each other’s wish to be their father’s (mother’s too?) favorite. Hating the need in each other; wanting it gone.

Anna – out for sex and not caring that Ester and Johan see her – tells Ester: “Stick to your own business instead of spying on me all the time.” Ester bites her lips; distressed and unhappy and in judgment (the “conscience”) of any corporeal need. 

Vengeful, Anna purposely exposes Ester to the way she passionately kisses a man, a stranger. Anyone will do. With shameless sex, shows Ester how he wants her. Rubbing in Ester’s face how desirable she is. To hurt Ester. This is how she hates, in her rivalry.

Yet, Ester is intrusive in her own hate. Tries to stop Anna from her expressing her desires. Asks: “What have I done to you?” Anna replies: “Nothing at all. You just go on purporting your principles … it’s your self-importance … I admired you, wanted to be like you. If I’d only known, you despise me … you hate me because you hate yourself.”

Hate & Alienation Equals Loneliness

It’s true. They hate each other – what they see of themselves. What they aren’t; what each lacks. Or what disgusts them. Makes them feel jealous and wrong. An old sibling competition. Ways they couldn’t get love. And, ways they try now. Or have given up. Anna laughs hysterically. Then, cries; the pain of it all – what she hides from in sex.

The pain of hate. Jealousy. Alienation from each other. Sadness of living in a gulf of isolation. How they’ve competed. Feeling the other most favored. And, in this difficulty, its deprivations, existing in a gap of friendless starvation. Ester, too, cries. Outside Anna’s locked door.

No, they can’t find each other. In their differences. And, in the intrinsic sameness of their needs. In the longings; unmet; that drive each other away. Make sisterly closeness impossible. An emotionally unavailable mother and father? Likely. And, that spawns envy and jealousy – more than the usual – in lonely, warring sisters. In The Silence (1963).

And, it’s killing both of them. In one way or another. Ester collapses, as we watch. Dying from the ways she’s locked herself inside. Rejected her longings. Anna, dying too, sealed inside her ravenous sexual desire. Leaving Johan with all the feelings; all the hungers; for the mother-love, they (and now he) cannot reach.

Anna:  Sultry, Sensual, Hungry For Love

Anna escapes whenever she can. Away from her unhappy life; an absent husband. Or a man she no longer wants. From a child that needs her; consumed with her own needs; now turned to sex. She watches a couple make love in the dark of a movie theater. She wants it. Wants something. Finds a waiter to seduce.

She’s a lost woman; searching faces in a crowd of strangers on the street of a foreign city. Her needs are as foreign to her as her son’s; wants and needs probably neglected since childhood. Just as she’s doing to Johan. Making him live in silenced starvation.

Insatiable. That’s Anna. On the street, she’s always looking. For a man.

Johan’s with the hotel steward, who knows loneliness too. Kindly offers food. Shows Johan photos of a dead wife. He has longing too. Like Johan’s. Johan wants his mother. No one else will do. He waits. As she re-enters the hotel hallway – with a strange man – he eagerly runs to her. But, she brushes him aside. Closes and locks the door.

Outside stands a sad, hungry child. Anna, too, is never satisfied. Anonymous sex doesn’t substitute for love. Or quench an unstoppable need to prove she’s wanted.

Anna torments Ester with details of laying with a man in a church. It is torture. Because Ester rejects sensual desire. And, because Anna neglects her; as she lies sick: “Stay with me awhile. Can’t you forget about your date, just once?” Anna, cruel, refuses her.

Wanting to get rid of Ester’s watching eyes, reminds her when their father died she’d said she no longer wished to live: “So, why are you living still?” Ester retreats. Johan watches her kiss the man. Lonely and morose, he walks away. Knocks on Ester’s door.

Ester:  Rejecting Need & Sensual Desire

Johan knows how Ester sees him – knows the ways that need must be refused.

Sick. Coughing up blood. Dying. Of alienation; from physical and sensual desire. Any such desire is contained completely in Anna. It disgusts Ester. She is intellect. Anna; body, sex. And, they are sisters in opposition. Confused by the other. Hating what the other represents. What is rejected in them.

What must be controlled In Ester. To not be humiliated by need: “I cannot lose control. I’m supposed to be untouchable. Dear God, let me reach home before I die.”

The hotel steward shows up and helps Ester to bed. He always, almost magically it seems, shows up just when she’s most desperate. And alone. She needn’t ask. Asking, showing need, is humiliation of the worst sort. He covers her; wipes her face; gives her a brush to comb her hair; and water. Takes care of her like a nurse. A mother.

Did she not have one; as Johan doesn’t? He takes the dirty bedding out – no sign of her “messy needs.” That’s what Ester wants. Anna masks her own lonely needs; makes them “disappear” with seduction/sex/men. Neither wants to face their real hungers.

Two different ways of managing wants; hated desires; when love is hard to reach. Those that might flood in; overwhelm; have to be controlled. In one way or another. And, Johan has his own way – a good boy on the surface; with resentments brewing.

Ester turns to deadness and death. Chain smokes despite coughing up blood. Doesn’t want to embrace life. Has no will for the kind of desire life requires. Yes, she’s drawn to the sensual nakedness of the sleeping Anna and young Johan – and repelled immediately, at the same time. Sick. Sad. And, isolated in her chosen world.

Wars Against Feelings Creates Loneliness

Yes, Ester’s alcohol and smoking are meant for dulling those warring feelings that torment her. What other way to escape? To keep them subdued; under control? Except for the ways her cough racks her body.  She rejects her body; sensual desire for a man; the opposite of Anna. She lives cerebrally, a researcher and writer. Anna in her body.

Yet, Ester masturbates. Another getting rid of need – since she won’t let anyone in. “Onanism in Bergman (Cowie, p. 212) suggests that a person’s whole psyche has grown inward, feeding upon itself instead of the nourishment of the outer world.” Of people.

Ester recoils from touch. But, she does see Johan’s loneliness; his mother’s neglect. Knows it too well. Loves him in her way. Shares her food. Talks to him. Falls asleep, breathing strained. Worrying a young boy; always on the verge of being left alone.

He plays Punch and Judy: “Help, I’m dying,” Judy cries. “Can’t you sing to me?” Ester asks. He’s scared. Angry. Hits himself on the head. Secretly, quietly, wipes away the tears.

A loud army tank rattles by outside. Each one of them in an internal war against their loneliness. And, their needs. Johan, leaving to eat something with a mother who doesn’t know how to give, reassures Ester he’ll be right back. He’s become the giver.

Ester, dying or afraid she is, has turned her bodily desires into disabling physical symptoms. She says of her condition: “euphoria,” but we don’t see it. We see writhing, in the struggle of rejected desires that live in Anna, her sister; her hated counterpart. 

Ghosts Of Feelings & Needs In The Silence

Their father, loud and strong, weighed a ton. “We had a terrible time getting him into the hearse.” The heavy weight of longings Ester carries. A dead father. Whose death still lives in her. Perhaps loved him in that unrequited impossible Oedipal way. Funneling her sexuality into research and writing – and never becoming free.

Ester asks the steward for a pad and pencil. She writes the words she knows in the foreign language of the city. Words for Johan. Something to give. To leave with him.

Yet, this is what she’s left with:

“I would not accept a woman’s lot in life. But, now I’m so terribly lonely. Dark forces are overpowering. But, you must watch what you are doing among the ghosts and memories.

Yes, the ghosts of grief. Suffocating in it, she calls for a mother she seemingly needs. But who she cannot find; is (maybe always was) inaccessible: “I’m frightened. Mother, Mother, I’m so terribly sick. Mother, come, help me, please. I’m afraid of dying.”

She covers her face. Johan uncovers it, frightened of losing her. Ester tells him: “You mustn’t be afraid. Don’t worry, I won’t die. I’ll be all right in a minute.” To Anna: “It’s better you go.” Anna (coldly): “I didn’t ask your opinion.”  Always at war.

Anna and Johan sit apart on the train; they too are alienated. Johan reads the words of a strange language that Ester has translated. A boy in a strange emotional world – with no grown-ups to help him with all the grief and longing he, too, must carry alone. For his mother, his aunt, and for himself.

Those ghosts. The dark forces of rejected longings. Memories of what wasn’t given. Of the grief that goes unexpressed – that the hotel steward lives with openly every day.

Hotel Steward:  Lonely Servitude & Ghosts Of Grief

The hotel steward knows grief. His wife died. And, he mourns her every day. Shows Johan photos. Longs for her. As Johan longs for his out-of-reach-mother.

He eats alone. Johan watches him – with a toy gun. Guarding against more danger of rejection and hurt. The Steward knows. Pretends to eat aggressively. Hungry too. Drinks from a flask. Understands both Ester and Johan. Offers Johan food.

The Steward tends Ester. The only one she can turn to – since Anna resents Ester’s needs; Ester who gets in the way of her own. And, besides, he escapes Ester’s eye of judgment; as his attentions are immediate; without asking; focused entirely on her.

The Steward has his flask. Brings Ester wine. Does not speak her language, but understands the language of grief and need. They communicate in sign. Creating an almost-silly, grotesque gesturing, forced smiles, mostly from him. He doesn’t know where or how he belongs, except in servitude. For a long time, in servitude to grief in The Silence.

That’s what it takes to get through the loneliness, isolation, alienation, we see in The Silence’s characters. Through the various ways they shut out and run from old feelings, fears, revulsion, and unsatisfied needs. Early losses and present ones. The heartbreak of the child living inside – just as Johan suffers the neglect of his mother; now.

Yes, this is what it takes. Serve grief. Let it in. Those ghosts and dark forces of feelings and needs. They don’t have to overpower you. And, you don’t have to be so watchful.

Befriend the ghosts. Know them. And, don’t: shut them out; or run from them; control them, or kill them. Feel them. Cry. Meet your hate and sadness head-on.

And, let people in too. Then: you won’t be lonely anymore.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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