‘The Silence’ opens Friday, March 15th at the Music Box Theater.
Baran bo Odar’s skillful and evocative film, The Silence (Das Letzte Schweigen) (Germany, 2010) presents a dilemma. I’m anxious to recommend the film based on its high level of craft and tact, but so much of the film traffics in bleakness, sorrow and guilt that it’s difficult to explain why putting yourself through it might be well worth your while. I can only point to other works, like James M. Cain’s novel The Killer Inside Me, or Lynda La Plante’s early Prime Suspect television work, or David Fincher’s film Seven, that present evil as a ubiquitous force, a perpetual undercurrent in our socioculture, waiting to drop a seemingly random few of us out of our ‘normal’ lives through a trapdoor of trauma and/or loss. Why might that interest us? Some of it is that ‘Thank God that isn’t happening to me’ sense of cathartic hopefulness, and some of it is just the analytical curiosity that comes with human nature. What kind of person could do this? How do the victims bear the tragedy? Odar, adapting a novel by Jan Costin Wagner, understands the immense power of empathy and community, and does us the favor of not manipulating the narrative to cheaply shock us or fabricate unearned emotion.
The film begins with our witnessing a nasty crime (in 1986) – two men, Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) and Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring) participate in the rape and murder of a young girl in a deserted field; one the perpetrator, the other a witness and enabler. We’re spared any explicit detail of the attack, but we’re certainly aware of what has just occurred; half of the information is just as unpleasant as the whole story, maybe more so, in that our imagination tends to fill in the gaps, whether we want it to or not.
We then flash forward to present day, where an identical crime has just occurred. And in logical police-procedural fashion, the big question is Why? Twenty-three years later? Like an episode of Columbo, witnessing the first (unsolved) crime early tells us a great deal of what we need to know about the second. But Odar isn’t nearly as interested in the investigation itself as he is in the effect it has on the people who are affected by it. Krischan Mittich (Burghart Klaussner) is a retiring veteran officer who re-emerges, with a vengeance, to take up the unsolved case where he left off, but the officious current superintendent, Grimmer (Oliver Stokowski) isn’t interested in his help; he’s relying on his own preferred case officers, David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg) and Jana Gläser (Jule Böwe). Not only must they acquaint themselves with the parents of the newly missing girl (the girl is Sinikka [Anna-Lena Klenke], the parents Karl and Ruth Weghamm [Roeland Wiesnekker and Karoline Eichhorn]), but they must also revisit the original girl’s mother (the original girl was Pia [Helene Doppler], and the mother is Elena Lange [Katrin Sass]). And hovering along the edge of the events is Timo, who has discreetly returned to the town upon hearing the news. He’s made an entirely new life for himself, but he’s inexorably drawn back, suspecting that Peer has returned to his old ways, and, like everyone else, wondering why.
That’s a mildly annoying roster of participants to hit you with out of the blue, but Odar’s handling of this ensemble of characters, and how their lives interweave with the narrative, is impressively well-structured and dynamically compelling. And thanks to a rewarding collaboration with his talented cinematographer, Nikolaus Summerer, the visual narrative is enriched with both complexity and clarity.We, the audience, have been given more information than the characters themselves possess, and Odar uses our distinct perspective to lend a depth and importance to disparate events that they don’t usually have in similar stories. The mechanism of the mystery takes care of itself, for better or worse – we’re freed to concentrate on the people, put ourselves in their shoes, and invest ourselves in the nobility, the eccentricities and the outright failings of their elemental humanity.
Everything that happens in the film follows a kind of intuitive logic – we never know what’s going to happen next, but when things happen, they seem appropriate, they seem inevitable, they seem earned. Whether that’s Baran bo Odar’s accomplishment, or whether he’s just a talented and sympathetic conduit for what was expressed in Wagner’s book, the impressive results remain. It’s a film about depressing things, but it’s not a depressing film. It’s oddly but truthfully comforting to understand that not everything ends neatly, not everyone finds closure, and bad things happen to good people more often than we would like. But those conditions are true for everybody. Burdens can be borne, and lost people can find their way back, and we all have a little more help than we allow ourselves to see.