European filmmakers and authors are finding strange, endlessly mystifying, connections between the nature of crime and nature. That’s something that might make Dostoievsky and Camus feel quite pleased with their theories, but it also speaks highly about the current state of Europe. Just think of how Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and its filmic incarnations have relied heavily on snowy landscapes previously thought of as empty but pure, to convey a sense of dread and deceit. It’s always what lies beneath the surface that will come back and destroy you.
Similarly, in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, we are presented with a chilling portrait of how even the most idealized settings can lead to unspeakable horrors, as we see a group of children turn into future murderers and potential Nazis who believe they can punish adults during their playtime. Or how in something like Antichrist, which is much less clinical in its study of crime but nonetheless equally cruel in its depiction of human destruction, Lars Von Trier suggests that in nature human beings can find all the inspiration they need to kill each other.
Now take The Silence, Baran bo Odar’s film based on a bestseller by Jan Costin Wagner, which opens in the most bucolic of German fields, an endless sea of golden wheat were the world seems completely at peace. We see a young woman (Pia, played by Helene Luise Doppler) carefreely riding her bike on her way home and then two men in a car appear behind her (perhaps a contrast used to serve as invitation to wonder about the perils of industrialization?). The young woman feels something wrong is going on, gets off her bicycle and tries to escape, but one of the men (Peer Sommer as played by Ulrich Thomsen) overpowers her, drags her to a field where he rapes and murders her. The camera focuses not on the awful crime occurring, but on its surroundings, once again showing us a landscape in perfect balance if it were not for its complicity in such a gruesome crime.
We also see the other man (Timo played by Wotan Wilke Möhring) sitting quietly in the car, he does not seem to be enjoying himself but he’s not trying to stop his partner either, in fact he helps put the dead body in the trunk of the car, as the other exclaims his surprise at being able to pull through such a terrible action. However, they leave the victim’s bicycle behind.
The film fast forwards 23 years and we find ourselves in the dead woman’s town. The unnamed location seems to have frozen in time, its inhabitants never having fully recovered from the horrors of Pia’s disappearance. Her murderer lives at large, while his silent assistant, who fled right after the crime, has married and has children.
Their lives are suddenly brought back together when a bicycle is found exactly where Pia’s bike was found more than two decades before. The victim this time is a teenager by the name of Sinnika (Anna Lena Klenke) who disappears from the local fair, her body missing just like the town’s most famous victim. Can it be that Peer has gone ahead and committed yet another crime as a fetishistic ritual? Even more disturbingly, has he killed another girl just to capture Timo’s attention?
The investigation is led by detective Matthias Grimmer (Oliver Stokowski) who has taken over from former lead investogator Krischan Mittich (Burghart Klaußner), a man still haunted by Pia’s death. The Silence sounds like a standard crime thriller, police procedural, but at its center there are elements that go beyond mere crimesolving. This is a movie fascinated with the nature of evil.
What leads people to commit crimes? Can these personalities be fixed? Does their upbringing affect who they become? To say that you leave the film without any answers might be unnecessary, but director Odar has managed to craft a think piece that’s equally (darkly) entertaining as it is fascinating.
Through its obsession with nature, the film suggests that there is a strange relation between the girls’ tragic endings and their parents problematic relationships with them, a curious but nonetheless disturbing notion that makes us believe they actually needed their children to leave them in order to move on with their lives. Nature, in a less philosophical way, even plays a part in a character’s eventual demise which seems to be both a baptism and nature collecting a debt. Odar shows no real mercy for his characters, as he tries to dig deep into the essence of what makes people’s lives worth living once they learn that justice might very well be a fantasy.
The Silence is presented in a wonderful high definition transfer that helps Nikolaus Summerer’s lush cinematography look even more pristine. The film, in German with a 5.1 audio transfer and English subtitles, also includes a great array of bonus features. Besides a standard trailer and interviews with the cast and crew it includes two short films by Odar: Quietsch and Under the Sun, two fascinating pieces that announced the great filmmaker he would become with The Silence. Hollywood better take notice of his talents, and soon.