One of the most gripping elements in The Silence, a winning thriller from the young, Swiss-born, German-based director Baran bo Odar, is its noise: little toneless crescendos, as abrupt as a zipper, that endue each scene-cut with rarely remitting intensity. (For an American analogue, think Jonny Greenwood’s electro-Stravinsky soundtrack for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.)
The Silence is a well-done piece, likely to score points among U.S. audiences who took to Guillaume Canet’s 2006 film Tell No One—another tale of unsolved mysteries that lurk like parasites. But if The Silence is unlikely to engender the mania of a certain Scandinavian trilogy—also, incidentally, about unhealed scars—that’s because Odar is up to much more than quickening pulses. Working with a slate of big-ticket European actors, Odar is etching portraits of parallel communities: within the town, within the police force, and within a criminal element that emerges as more emotionally cohesive than either.
Twenty-three years after the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in a Bavarian wheat field that left the town paralyzed and at least two detectives permanently fucked, the crime is restaged with a precision—down to the color of the car—that smacks of ritual. As those atonal sound-swipes punctuate leaps in time between the first and second crimes, we meet a portion of the town’s citizenry, and the stakes heighten even as the ostensible pace slows.
These are people driven by an unexorcised trauma, but the ensemble plays it all very classy, especially Katrin Sass and Karoline Eichhorn as the bereaved mothers: the first summoning, stoic smiles practiced over 23 years, the second slowly going mad as it becomes clear that her daughter has not merely been kidnapped. The portrait of the small squadron of policiers, meanwhile, is deft and sometimes startling, too. David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg, recognizable to U.S. audiences from The Baader Meinhof Complex) plays the widowed detective who must fight his obnoxious superiors tooth and nail to get them to realize the significance of what’s going on.
Everyone here is damaged goods in one way or another, but Jahn’s visionary moment is to recognize the choreography of the second murder for what it is: an attempt at silent communication between (deeply twisted) friends. Hence the title, some may say, and yes, they’d be right in the main. But Odar’s is a film about distances: among a community, within a marriage, across decades, beyond the grave—all inexpressible in words, but telegraphed here through meticulous but rather daring sound direction over otherwise lush shots of the German countryside.
Not having read the Jan Costin Wagner novel on which the film is based, I can’t be certain whether this evocation of vertiginous fissures is Odar’s invention or just his achievement. But the film is slick if slow-burning (still under two hours), and the portrayals of kinship, even in its most perverse forms, are very Russian-novel. Odar once told Variety that he was obsessed with Dostoevsky, but he’s also semi-obsessed with David Lean. It will be fascinating to see how Odar negotiates these two impulses in his forthcoming English-language debut.