Part Of The Picture: Lost in Translation

Posted on September 3, 2010



SEP 4, 2010 – EACH OF THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS in this largely dialogue-free film – Anna, her sister Ester, and Anna’s boy Johan – gets a moment where their actions are underscored by the ticking of a timepiece. We hear the sound when Johan sketches for his aunt, when the bedridden Ester writes a note to her nephew (though, this time, there’s at least someone by the bedside holding up a pocket watch), and after Anna has had sex with a stranger in the strange country they’ve stopped in, alighting from a train for reasons not quite specified. Is this ticking an indication of passing time? Is it something else? Bergman is at his most inscrutable here, so there are no ready answers. There are, however, patterns, reiterations – like that ticking, which first appears over the opening credits.

The credits end, and the ticking ceases abruptly to accommodate the sound of a train. Johan is nodding off. Beside him is Anna, her mouth partly open and her chest speckled with sweat. She fans herself with a magazine. And beside her is Ester, who, like her nephew, appears to be asleep while seated. The difference between Anna and Ester couldn’t be more marked. Anna is in an evening gown which displays generous flashes of shoulder and chest. Around her neck is a chain, and her tousled hair is loose. Ester, on the other hand, has her hair done in a formal fashion, and she’s attired in a buttoned-up dress with lapels. There is no jewellery, and unlike Anna, her mouth is pursed. We don’t know this yet, but this difference in appearances is an early indicator that Anna is the “sinner,” fond of fleshly pleasures, while Ester is the “saint,” suffering for everyone’s sins.

The boy gets up, rubs his eyes, and looks past the camera. What he’s looking at is not important. What’s important is that he’s looking – he’s the film’s observer. Much later, when the sisters converse, Johan will be positioned at a corner of the frame, observing this conversation. Johan is the one who will observe the hotel employee fixing the bulb in a chandelier. He’s the one who will observe the troupe of dwarves. He’s the one who will observe, from a corner, Anna and a stranger fumbling with the keyhole so they can enter a room and have sex. He’s the one who will peer past the hotel window and observe the crowds milling about in the new city. He’s the one, in this opening stretch on the train, who will observe the man in uniform in an adjacent coupe, along with the series of tanks outside that appear to indicate a city on the brink (or already in the midst) of war.

Johan, now, cups his hands to his eyes and looks into the dark, outside the train. Unlike his mother and aunt, who appear more interested in themselves (in gratifying their own needs), Johan is the one who’s interested in what’s happening outside, and therefore, it’s no surprise when he – the observer – is the one to ask Ester what the sign beside her means. It’s in a strange language. She says she doesn’t know. All she knows is that she’s tired and she’s racked by coughing spasms. But this act of asking for meaning carries significance in the context of subsequent events. For one, Ester is a translator, an expert in various languages, and yet she cannot understand the sign – and that’s the first time we sense this film’s theme of non-communication, which, of course, is just another name for silence.

Tystnaden (1963, Swedish; aka The Silence). Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Starring Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, Jörgen Lindström.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign