When a young girl is murdered in circumstances identical to a crime that took place two decades previously, the police rush to investigate. Gradually we see, through flashbacks, how a friendship between two men led to the first killing. This debut film from director Baran bo Odar expands the form of the police procedural, granting moments of pathos to all characters concerned, telling their stories, while never straying too far from the film’s roots in the thriller genre.
Rather than go for the easy Gothic feel of a wintry murder story set in Mitteleuropa (dark red stains tainting driven snow) the film is set during a heatwave. The simmering temperature is palpable, creating a clammy, fractious tension that befits the film’s subject matter. The Silence puts one in the uncomfortable position of almost rooting for Timo, the sweaty-palmed accomplice to the crime, yet this is not a provocation, but comes from the film’s insistence on the humanity of all the characters. A perverse sense of dramatic irony descends in the film’s second half, as Timo attempts to apologise covertly to the victim’s mother for his part in the crime. Another chilling moment shows two child murderers standing in an awkwardly held medium shot, as a young boy overhears them and innocently asks if he can join them in watching a film.
Actors’ past roles bring a ghostly presence to their current ones, and there is an awkward pathos in seeing the abuse victim from Festen (1998) turned abuser. In his current guise, Ulrich Thomsen resembles a kind of haggard, Nordic Colin Firth. He portrays the killer as an inadequate, rather than a cackling, serial killer, although we understand he is part of something even more disturbing than what we see on screen. The police characters are fully rounded too. The inclusion of a pregnant detective has been called a Fargo reference but, in fact, the actress signed up for the role before becoming aware of her condition. In a film about the impact of lives being snatched away, the inclusion of a life not yet lived adds a thematic counterweight. The film’s most intriguing performance, though, is Claudia Michelsen’s. Her presence is a distinct mixture of elegance and burned-out discomfort well-suited to her role as the wife of the weak-willed accomplice.
There are some signs that this is a debut feature. The score is too conventional for such an intense story, coming across as generic ‘murder mystery’ music at times. The scene in which several characters are cross-cut as they find out about the copycat murder would be more effective were it not marred by dissonant industrial noise swelling on the soundtrack. Shots of the murdered girl’s stuffed toys and paintings seem like too obvious a tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately though, this is a confidently paced film with a taut script that allows characterisation to develop with the performances rather than the dialogue. The Silence presents no convenient resolution and offers no easy answers.
John A. Riley