This year’s second-annual German/Austrian Film Festival, sponsored by the department of German and Russian, focuses on the theme of silence and silencing. Baran bo Odar’s The Silence, the first of three films, was screened at Images Cinema on Oct. 26. The last film, Breathing, directed by Karl Markovics, screens this Monday at 7 p.m.
For a film about murder, The Silence (2010) begins with an almost paradoxical sense of calm. Opening with the soft whirring of a film projector, darkness engulfs the screen until slowly, from afar, a dim peephole lights up, illuminating a thin stream of light, dulled yellow and swimming with dust.
Set in the idyllic Bavarian countryside, this German film follows the enigmatic murder of an 11-year-old girl named Pila, who was found raped and dead in the wheat field behind her house one late summer evening in 1986. A wrinkle in an otherwise utopian provincial history, Pila’s case confounds the police department and haunts local residents with its unsolvable grimness.
Twenty-three years later to the day, 13-year-old Sinikka Weghamm leaves home after an argument with her parents and never returns. The circumstances of her disappearance eerily echo those of Pila’s – a lonely road, an unsuspecting rider and a silent countryside that bears no witnesses. Unbeknownst to the police force, however, Sinikka’s untimely death is in fact a near-exact replica of Pila’s, down to the very face they saw in the last moments of their lives.
Triggered by the similarity of the incidents and by the resurfacing of her daughter’s case in the local media, Pila’s mother Elena grows suspicious. Over 23 years, she has pursued her daughter’s death with ceaseless puzzlement. Pila’s room remains unchanged, save the slow graying of her wallpapers; little of Elena has changed either, with the exception of the slowly expanding etches on her stony face. The repetition of history grows even more uncanny when Kristian Mittich, the former detective on Pila’s case, finds himself once again hopelessly intrigued by the disappearance of a young girl on a bike. Neither Elena nor Kristian, it seems, can resist this simulacrum of the past, trapped by the profound anxiety that surrounds the unexplained phenomena of the girls’ brutal murders.
But not all is the same this time around. Enter David Jahn, a brilliant young detective who has just returned from a four-month period of mourning after his wife’s death. A protégé of sorts to the retired Mittich, Jahn is clearly still trapped within the manifolds of his grief. But it is this volatile sorrow that inspires him to pursue Sinikka’s case with a doggedness that eventually yields a semblance of breakthrough. Like Elena, he, too, is marked by a lingering grief that wields its searing slice at the most unexpected of times; like Kristian, he is held captive by the intrigue of Sinikka’s case, unable to move past the ideé fixe that slowly consumes his life.
Hovering in the periphery of the intersecting seams of these characters’ lives is Timo Friedrich – father, husband, architect and witness to Pila’s murder. Marked by a nervousness that bleeds through his timid disposition, what little Friedrich says is punctuated with anxious shuffling – a twitch here, a grimace there, so subtle that it seems even he is unable to repress it.
Twenty-three years ago, a young Friedrich, then a failing math major, met and befriended a Danish émigré named Peer Sommer. The obsession that bound these men, and the rippling guilt of what they did, pose the crux of the film’s sinister examination of grief, obsession and vulnerability.
In a whirlwind of cinematographic mastery, director Baran bo Odar poses the theme of silence as both an adjective and a verb. In his panoramas of the expansive German countryside, glimmering gold with impending fall, we read virility and fertility. Juxtaposed against the deaths of the young girls, this haunting specter of space poses an ironic beauty that silently pervades every crystal-cut scene. Silence, too, is perpetuated by the motif of water – from the Friedrichs’ private pool to the black lake of Pila and Sinikka’s last resting place – which invokes the muffling of sound and a disquietude of drowning gurgles.
Similarly, children, and the vulnerability of their matchstick bodies, wound in the innocence of their minds, pierce through the film in dispersed shots of exuberant play. Vivacious though they may be, our knowledge of the transgressions against them, and the animalistic violence we are then forced to reckon with, reveal in us our own gnashing fragility.
The Silence closes with the muted shot of an apartment door. Unadorned, it is marked only by the tiny peephole punctured in its center. As the scene fades, we are reminded of the fact that we, too, have been complicit simply by virtue of our prolonged glimpse into this tormented world. Guilt marks our complicity in the viewing of bodies, as witnesses to the perversity of human passions. But our vision is dulled. Our participation is limited, after all: We are but silent bearers of the burden of knowledge.