The Body, the Soul and Child amid Collapse of Civilization into Everyday Survival and War Marginalizing and Minimizing Life

The silence of human soul as a political problem is the last version of and, at the same time, a radical shift from the issue of the “silence of God”, which Bergman developed earlier in his “religious trilogy”. The silence of the human soul includes speech without (existentially spiritual) meaning – ideological propaganda, commercial ads, everyday life clichés and (nonsensical) commonsense “wisdoms”. Speech without meaning as a component of “silence” is present in the film in endless “pantomimes” of prosaic life – army officers in the train, people on the street, customers in overfilled bar, day- and night-workers.

We’re not saved by God, but by love. That’s the most we can hope for… Each film of the Trilogy has its moment of contact, of human communication: the line “Father spoke to me,” at the end of “Through a Glass Darkly; the pastor conducting a service in empty church for Martha at the end of “Winter Light”; the little boy reading Ester’s letter on the train at the end of “The Silence”. A tiny moment in each film – but crucial one. What matters most of all in life is being able to make that contact with another human being. Otherwise you are dead, like so many people today. But if you can take that first step toward communication, toward understanding, toward love, then no matter how difficult the future may be – and have no illusions, even with all the love in the world, living can be hellishly difficult – then you are saved.
Ingmar Bergman (quoted in Paisley Livingston, “Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art”), Cornell University Press, 1982, p. 253

Following the première in September 1963 the press was full of headlines such as ‘Moral outrage’ and ‘Indignation and abhorrence for Bergman film’. The Christian magazine Dagen was especially harsh in its censure, and even though none of its staff had seen the film, they had declare that the film not only showed scenes of intimacy, but also ‘other abominations, such as a girl’s self-abuse’. Pastor John Hedlund summed up their feelings: ‘If Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, however artistic that may be, he is still Satan nonetheless’.

I have never denied my second (or first) life, that of the spirit.
Ingmar Bergman, I. Bergman, “The Magic Lantern (An Autobiography)”, Penguin, 1988, p. 204

Bergman and Johan’s future

Ingmar Bergman at the age comparable with that of Johan, one of the main characters in the film

Bergman is making a point to Johan that the world of military technology (here – tanks transported by the cargo trains into places of their use) are toys of childish imagination which adult people take seriously because they are not able to live with (spiritual) seriousness. Bergman is trying to make Johan psychologically stronger than the technological phantoms of human irrational fears.

Bergman teaches Johan/Jorgen Lindstrom not to feel subdued by the life of the mysterious hotel where his family stays for a short period

Bergman is helping Jorgen Lindstrom (Johan) to feel himself as a creator by making the puppet, “whom” he later will use to distract ailing Ester from her grief.

Lilliputians in the film as personification of the condition of males involved in war, but also of the artistic ability to personify them critically

Lilliputians in the film belong to a wandering troupe of circus artists performing in Variety Theater near hotel. In their numbers we see unambiguous albeit veiled satire on war-making. Here, in their hotel-room they’re entertaining themselves and their unexpected guest – Johan.

War stimulates blind and maniacal sexuality

By wandering about the city Anna drops in Variety, where she sees in the box neighboring with hers a couple involved in sexual intercourse, forgetting about everything around them.

Suddenly understanding what she semi-consciously was looking for – causal amorous partner, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) went to the bar on the corner, where she was quickly “discovered” by the man looking like soldier in spite of his civil clothes. Pay attention to the marks on her anonymous partner’s shoulder.

Hotel room service attendant (Hakan Jahnberg) personifies in the film the ennobling influence of human mortality on those who are spiritually sensitive to life

The room service attendant sees in Johan, as if, an existential partner – a person co-belonging to the living.

The old man shares with Johan photos of himself when he was about Johan‘s age and, in the following still, when he is already middle-aged, as, probably, Johan‘s father.

For some moments, the old man identifying with Johan’s gaze, felt himself not, really, vitalized and energetic, of course, but living again – through saying farewell to his life.

After giving away to Johan his photos – gesture of giving his life to the future in the hands of new generations, the old man is overtaken by the feeling of his destiny

War as everyday life

The town where Johan’s mother and aunt stopped was typical place over-busy with survival under war and full of grey and greedy – working or vain men

Human soul and sexual nucleus of body-ness

While Johan’s mother was looking for consolation, his aunt was bounded, because of her illness, by her room.

Bergman in “The Silence” shocked the audiences by depicting a masturbatory act (performed by one of the world cinema the most serious actress Ingrid Thulin) not just matter-of-factly but with reverie.

To make an orgasm by the “trivial vice” a part of life of a person whom Bergman depicts as role model, is more than just violation of philistine’s etiquette. Bergman and Ingrid Thulin were able to challenge the international public opinion influenced by bad faith, conformism and fake chastity.

This visual image of the very perception of orgasm by the human soul Bergman “borrowed” from Jean Cocteau’s “The Blood of a Poet” (1930).

Hotel room steward, Ester

His facial expression is that of a person who is in between his life and his death, who is in an existential – not religious “purgatory”. He is not tired of his life and he is not afraid of dying. He is suspended in nowhere-land – in a pure self-contemplation, pure perception of his own memories and knowledge.

Ester, on the other hand, questions over and over her approaching death. She belongs to what she understands as her obligations before people, as her mission, and she could prefer to postpone the inevitable, not for the sake of herself, but in order to finish what she lives for – helping people to understand ideological and political lies. Her illness fuels her passionate, rebellious nature and makes her more idealistic. She is a martyr of spiritual humanism, a personification of a not yet existing – wise humanity.

Ester is immensely grateful to those who try to help her in her predicament, in her being abandoned by her sister, her losing the meaning of her whole life attacked by the blind circumstances.

We look at the room steward’ facial expression which is that of the human soul reflecting on human destiny. “The Silence” is the communication of the human soul with the destiny of humankind.

Ester with her dedication to world culture

Ester’s life is thoroughly devoted to her analytic reading and thinking about life and the world, and to caring about her sister and nephew Johan. She needs to keep her illness under control to continue to train her ability to explain to people the existential traps and the necessity of carry on with cognitive enlightenment. Ester tries to distract Anna from wasting her life on casual and empty affairs and especially gently – to weaken intensity of bodily symbiosis between Anna and Johan in order to stimulate in Johan the development of his soul and mind out of swooning identification with his mother. Adult males are either in wars of domination or in business of profit at all cost, and these wasteful obsessions distract them from being able to help their children to overcome intellectual conformism and blind rivalry.

Ester is smoking because of identification with her father who is no longer alive and who in the film is a metaphoric personification of God-father. She is drinking to be maximally alert until she is still alive.

Emancipated nature of Ester’s social posture is mixed here with the necessity not to lose the ability to work while going through terminal illness and spasms of agonizing pain.

Ester has her own euphoric moments for which she is paying dearly with her rapidly nearing death. She is a little overstimulates the importance of her soul. And her illness is made worse by her mental overstimulation. Her body is dying partially because her soul is over-active and over-passionate. She, as if, sacrifices her survival to her cognition.

Ester understands that her time with Anna and Johan is ending, and she doesn’t want to burden them with her unanswered expectations, closing hopes and unleashed dreams. This shot is registering the moment when Ester, as if, saying good bye to the quietly and innocently sleeping mother and son, her sister and nephew.

Ester rather dramatically, making a psychological point to herself, is closing the door behind her as she is leaving Anna and Johan’s room, and is looking to death.


Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and her casual lover (Birger Malmsten), feel in a way, as if, their relations were under siege. Who can reproach them for simply wanting to live even in the very middle of death/war, even though their understanding of living follows the most conformist and standard behavioral scenario?

Escapist and consumptive sex felt natural and easy, but its unconscious intention is not quick pleasure but the necessity to neutralize the hard work of human survival during war or any hard times. The meaninglessness of surviving a meaningless war can only be compensated by a meaningless sexuality. So, after indulgence you have nasty feelings coloring your relations with people.

Irresistible, fertile, generating health and vitality – bodily spiritual (chaste) and spiritually redeeming body of Anna.

Moved by the desire to overcome her (younger sister’s) dependence on Ester, Anna lets Ester enter her ephemeral nest in a casual hotel room to see her sexual triumph over her lover.

In the presence of her transitory lover, right after they were making love, Anna accuses Ester of being moralistic, despotic, bossy and self-centered

Human body which Anna personifies in the film (more exactly, the body-ego, not in a conventional sense, rather – the body’s soul), has its own logic and its own will, but human soul (personified by Ester) as an independent psychological agency has more sophisticated logic and much more wisdom. Ester is not accusing Anna in anything, and is only trying to justify her position that it’s necessary to be less impulsive and less egocentric, and more disinterested in our decisions.

Like Ester is “crucified” by agonies of her illness for her disagreement with a world oriented on, simultaneously, killing and mindless survival, on rivalry, competition and fight/wars, Anna is “crucified” on her bed of passionate sexuality.

Ester is trying in vain to distract Anna away from the wild soil of primordial sexual yearnings, but sexual refinement is not “organic” enough for Anna

Anna’s resistance to Ester’s timid attempts to “save” her from the abuses of sexual abysses is as “ultimate” as heterosexual clash of male and female bodies rushing to mutual orgasmic triumph.

Johan, Johan and Anna

Lost while wandering through endless corridors of the anonymous hotel, Johan is confused by the fact that opposite directions which Bergman made the directions of Johan’s destiny, both refer to a future which not Anna but Ester has in mind for Johan – not a path to a blind (non-reflective) behavior (which inevitably leads to clash, fight and wars), but the one to a world culture and collaboration and tolerance and love for otherness.

Johan is puzzled and a bit frightened by the painting on the wall of the hotel lobby, representing a normalized version of sexual violence

The lucky and benevolent moment in the life of a mother and child when mother (here Anna) is nearby to have her son’s (Johan) head rest on her lap

Johan’s time of bliss is being close to mother’s bodily plenitude

What a happiness for Johan to be able to touch mother’s nape with his forehead

Johan, like all the boys, likes to play war and ambush

Johan’s future which his mother cannot question or even contemplate while his aunt is terrified about, is represented by Bergman by what Johan sees through the window of the train – tanks transported to the place of the battles.

Johan and Ester

Johan between Anna and Ester
Johan’s factual life is to be locked between his mother and his aunt, between body and the soul, between sensations and contemplations, feelings and existential, not technical thinking, between rewarding heteronomy and anarchic autonomy

If Johan’s relationship with his mother is immediate – emotional as extension of the bodily, his relations with Ester are mediated by understanding, mentality and independence

Johan is saying good bye to Ester
Johan is saying good bye to Ester. He, probably, will never see her again. But is this farewell forever or just situation? Aren’t the most important realities happening inside us and the most important relationships continue to influence us long after their factual end?

Ester and Anna (Dualism of Soul and Body)

Inevitable separation between Ester and Anna is the logical non-identity between thinking and feeling, emotions and cognition – between feelings growing into thinking, and feelings as limit of themselves

The very icon of non-identity between existential, not technical mentality and the heart of human emotions, between the very heart of mentality and heart satisfied with itself

Anna and Johan depart from dying Ester, but Johan has a letter from his aunt which has to become a part and, may be, even the nucleus of his future


“Silence” as the absence of a culture of interpersonal confession is the basic existential metaphor of the film, the absence of communion between human souls as a condition of today’s world. The “silence” as a condemnation of human beings and communities dominates existential climate when people exchange either about what is not too important for them or, when it is important, it’s understood by them only instrumentally or through polished sticky clichés (when either shy hints or slang express/hide the real problems about life which people then left buried inside themselves). “Silence” thrives when too much noise exists – industrial, pop-musical, everyday life, of anonymous crowds, of shouts and screams, of roar of military technology. These types of noise are the symptoms of the silence of human souls.

Who are the three key characters in the film, Ester, her sister Anna and Anna’s pre-adolescent son Johan, crossing Europe during war on a train and get stuck in an anonymous city at a hotel when Ester’s illness takes a turn for worse? They are the personifications of the basic archetypes of human existence – Anna personifies the bodily self, our bodily drives and prejudices, the immanent spirituality of our body-ness and, at the same time the limitations of carnal way of perception of the world, then Ester personifies the soul’s self, soul’s needs and its conscious and unconscious in a particular historical moment of Western civilization, when after “death of God” human beings try to take charge of their life inside the parameters of secularized culture. This Western soul at the end of the 20th century (and the beginning of the next century) is as oversensitive and in most situations superfluous as it is feverish and powerless, as demanding as it’s doomed and agonizing and unable to enlighten its less mature – bodily sister. Our time, Bergman seems to be saying, is a time of decline and, may be, eclipse of the soul, but the one with hope for its recovery in future generations. It is, as if, the old soul is dying without god (without belief in god), but a new soul, completely existential (without theological prostheses) is trying to be born. The potential for harmony between soul and body, for the spiritually existential perception of the world is personified by the little Johan. And at this moment of history Johan, it seems, has to choose between his mother (body’s self) and his aunt (soul’s self) – between the neo-pagan and the post-religiously spiritual orientation. He has to eventually be able to grow away from the silence of bodily (physical and emotional) complicity with wars and soulless industrialization/technologiization, with mass culture of artificial (maniacally obsessive) pleasures and with blind sex, and to choose communion between dissimilar human beings. Johan’s communication with Ester is based on sublimated ways: reading to her, drawing for her, putting a puppet show for her, reading a letter she wrote for him, listening explanations from her containing his worries and clearing the mysterious and intimidating world of adults, etc. Johan, according to Ester, has, in his development, to take a direction on democratic (pluralistically oriented) humanism, not on the blissful swooning of bodily and emotional symbiosis’ blind yearnings.

One of the most daring aspects of Bergman’s film is the depiction of Ester’s lesbian desire for Anna not only as sexual and spiritual but as a moral position – result of her basic revulsion for the condition of the world, created by men and men’s territorial fights, hierarchical rivalries and reproductive reflexes as function of their self-assertion and self-expansion (Walter J. Ong, “Fighting for Life [Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness]”, Cornell Univ. Press, 1981). Bergman, seems, to be saying here that personal love as a completely human experience has to interact with the otherness of the bellowed person. The affair between Anna and her anonymous partner (Birger Malmsten) is another side of war (sexual equivalent of war), a regressively impersonalizing condition of life, which leads to aggressive assertion of the body at a price of denial of human soul’s needs.

“The Silence” is the third and the last part of Bergman’s “religious trilogy”, where Bergman addresses the life of the human psyche after the “death of god” – after the belief in the existence of “Heaven” as a basis of human life became flattened and marginalized. If in “Winter Light” the “death of god” is still interpreted as a “silence of god” (withdrawal of god, humans being abandoned by god), in “The Silence” the issue is human ability or inability to live with one another without theological mediation (which is “too thick” ontologically to promote human concentration on how to treat other human beings). In “The Silence” the silence is already not that of God’s (as a result of his “death”), but the future of human beings and human societal life – of human souls and bodies vis-à-vis other human souls and bodies.

The basic metaphors of the film represent the anatomy of modern life in its present condition: cargo trains with military equipment, passenger train with its cabins and corridors, monstrous “landscapes” of endless trucks – the tragic parody on Western civilization’s economic and military nomadism with a connotation of globalist intentionality; the anonymous hotel (where Ester, Anna and Johan temporarily stay); relationship between sisters after death of their father; Johan‘ relationship with his mother and, on the other hand, with his aunt; Anna’s way of life with her bodily rooted needs and moods, her sexual desires and her primordial bond with her son; Ester’s way of life with dedication to the meaning of human existence, her work as a translator of books, her drinking to alleviate the paroxysms of her illness, her smoking (sign of her identification with her father), her moments of contemplating about life and death, her communications with hotel room steward, her interest in serious music, her masturbation, etc.; Anna’s voyeuristic, exhibitionistic and sexual obsessions and her fights with Ester which meant to assert her freedom of sexual self-expression; Ester’s suffering because of Anna’s “moral weakness”; anonymous crowds oriented on survival, consumption of entertainment and military fight; hotel’s porter (Hakan Jahnberg) personifying the spirit of Bertrand Russel, and his relations with Ester and with Johan; the condition of typical male in Western societies as it is represented by the group of dwarf clowns and their “message” to Johan; Bach’s music as a drop of emotional spirituality in a world of silence – of total conformism and predatoriness; separation of Anna and Ester (of body-self and soul’s self of the modern psyche); separation of Johan and Ester (as a precondition of their ongoing relationship, their spiritual rapport); Ester’s letter to Johan as a Derridian trace and a message of hope.

The waiter at the restaurant (Anna’s casual lover) and the hotel porter (Ester’s caretaker and Johan’s friend) are two exceptionally important and semantically symmetrical characters in the film. The first is everybody – he is a typical European, American, Russian or Eastern living in toughest of times and trying to adapt and survive by any price. The hotel porter, on the other hand, is blessed by humility and contemplative ability. Bergman makes him even physically resemble Bertrand Russel to emphasize the existential overtones of Russell’s philosophy – sobriety of anti-dogmatic wisdom, rationalism with a courage to live without surrendering to obsessive panaceas and thinking without or at least with minimum of illusions. “For Russell rational thought is not the quest for certainty” (Erich Fromm, “On Disobedience”, Seaburry, 1981, p. 53). The porter’s “mini-pantomime of human destiny” in front of little Johan reminds us the “dance of human destiny” (performed by Antoine – Jean Rochefort, in front of the little client of his wife-hairdresser) in Patrice Leconte’s “Hairdresser’s husband” (made in 1990, many years after “The Silence”).

The separation of Johan and Ester at the end of the film, when Anna leaves sick Ester and takes Johan with herself, is not necessarily making the film “pessimistic”. With the fact that the mother, naturally, occupies the center of Johan’s world and Ester is just of a marginalized importance, her influence can be stronger than that of plenitude of Anna’s overwhelming physical availability. The tendencies which dominate also disseminate themselves, but a trace of the alternative can be stable and self-accumulating. “For presence to function… it must have the qualities that supposedly belong to its opposite, absence… Instead of defining absence in terms of presence, as its negation, we can treat presence as the effect of absence or as…difference.” (Jonathan Culler, “On Deconstruction [Theory and Criticism after Structuralism]”, Cornell Univ. Press, 1985, p. 95). Ester who in Johan’s experience and perception constitutes herself as a subject “divided from herself… in deferral” (Jacques Derrida, “Positions”, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 29), can eventually become more important than Anna – as meaning, as a motto, as the dead father in Kenji Mizogucci’s “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), who is able to radically influence his two children’s behavior long after his departure.

It is significant not only that Ester communicates with Johan through letter to him, but also that this letter is written on a solid, thick piece of paper – her being is incarnated not just in her symbolic message but in the very materiality of writing as a medium. In this sense her advice to Johan is not only to study foreign languages – to be able to dissipate the silence between people’s souls and to understand human dissimilarity, but to study the very human ability for written languages. Ester’s text doesn’t include, of course, any obvious advice and, god forbid, any trace of didacticism. It is “a speech produced without least violence… Nonviolent language would be a language without the verb to be, that is, without predication. It would be language of pure invocation…proffering only proper nouns in order to call to the other from afar.” (Jacques Derrida, “Writing and Difference”, Univ of Chicago press, 1978, p. 147). Non-violent code of communication as a model of communion is Ester’s precept to Johan.

Johan received secularly spiritual blessings – from his mother, from the old porter, from dwarfs-performers, and from Ester. They are – bliss of physical unity with another body, the message of the inevitability of aging and losing the loved ones, of loneliness and death, the message of spiritual androgyny as an alternative (to the belligerency and consumerism) model of human life and development, and the necessity for a non-violent, sublime communication with other people.

Posted on June 9, 2016 –   “The Silence” by Ingmar Bergman (1963) by Acting-Out Politics

Posted on Oct, 6 ’17 – Little Johan Meets The Hotel Room Service Attendant (Hakan Jahnberg) – From Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence” (1963) by Acting-Out Politics