“How nice that we don’t understand each other,” Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) comments to her lover as they lie together in bed.

He’s a waiter in the bar of the hotel she’s staying at with her son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstron), and her gravely ill sister, Ester (Ingrid Thulin). They don’t speak the same language; she keeps talking at him, but he doesn’t reply. There’s only silence between them, and sexual desire, which has a language all of its own.

But the obstruction of communication is rarely imagined as ‘nice’ throughout Ingmar Bergman’s bold and extraordinary film The Silence (1963), where characters either don’t understand each other or use words to tear each other apart. In this film, language is problematic and the chance of people ever connecting through speech is perverted by words themselves.

Earlier in The Silence we see Anna, Ester and Johan travelling home via train to Sweden through an unnamed country that seems to be on the brink of war. Johan, unable to read a sign, asks his aunt, “What does that mean?” Ester, a translator, is also baffled, “I don’t know.” Despite the sound of the train clacking on its tracks with a grating and hypnotic repetition, as well as Ester’s rhythmic coughing, the overwhelming feature of the soundtrack in this opening sequence is silence. And yet in the space of a few short moments, devoid of dialogue, we learn much about these three people.

The Silence (1963)

The inadequacy of language to explain the world, to forge connections, and to secure existential meaning, is one of the great recurring themes of Bergman’s work. Characters repeatedly do not know how to communicate, or try and fail because language itself is insufficient for articulating human pain, suffering, longing or grief. One may walk away from a Bergman film overwhelmed by the immense breakdown of speech as a form of communion. The very title of a film like Cries and Whispers (1972) – in which its four female characters are emotionally estranged for much of the action – suggests two extreme forms of expression (crying and whispering) from which the hope of being heard and understood is remote.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

The son of a strict, conservative Lutheran minister, Bergman’s anxiety about language can be read in concert with his doubt in God’s existence, or as it manifests in many films, as God’s silence. Although his films are not ‘religious’ in a conventional sense, Bergman’s loss of faith as a young boy and lifelong agnosticism percolates throughout many of them. There is both a personal and historical context for this absence of certainty in a Europe still scarred by the bloodshed of World War II. And it is a thematic concern in the unofficial trilogy that began with Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1962) and concluded with The Silence (originally explicitly titled God’s Silence). While very different, each of these films imagines a bleak world – a meaningless world on the brink of catastrophe.

Bergman’s cinematic world is frequently one lacking salvation. And yet it’s redemption that his characters repeatedly seek – sometimes from a spiritual entity, but on most occasions from each other. The deeply moving Wild Strawberries (1957) follows a protagonist trying to find meaning in his life as he comes to the end of it. Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an “old pedant” in his own words, is a 78-year-old widowed physician about to receive an honorary degree from Lund University. The narrative is shaped around his journey by car from Stockholm to Lund with his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thurlin) in tow, and some young people who tag along for a portion of the ride. But it is also a journey deep into his past, as he remembers along the way many of the disappointments of his life. He engages in ‘dream’ conversations with various players from the past as they appeared to him then. These include a cousin, Sara (Bibi Andersson) whom he loved, and who married his older brother Sigfrid.

A profoundly lonely man, Isak uncovers meaning in the life he has lived through these conversations and reminiscences. But the past is another place and now he is only a visitor there. A conversation with Sara, in which she asks him to look into a mirror and acknowledge the truth of what he sees, is a difficult one for him. He sees an old man who is going to die but she tells him he doesn’t understand, that “we don’t speak the same language,” and asks him to look again. For Isak, the truth hurts too much and he remains incapable of communicating what he really sees.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Also facing imminent death, the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) has returned to Sweden after ten years in the Crusades seeking answers from a God who will not answer when he calls to him. The Seventh Seal (1957) is a blistering work of religious philosophy, a film that posits silence as death in a world of physical horrors and moral hypocrisy. Like Isak in Wild Strawberries, Block is also forced to look at himself, lamenting, “I want to confess as honestly as I can, but my heart is empty. And the emptiness is a mirror turned toward my own face. I see myself in it, and it fills me with loathing and horror.” He’s confessing to black-hooded Death (Bengt Ekerot), that he is afraid to die without some proof of God: “I cry to him in the darkness, but sometimes it feels like no one is there.”

Death literally haunts Block’s journey home (“I have been at your side a long time”), taunting him as they famously play chess, and refusing to answer his questions, which take on an ever-increasing urgency as they inch closer to checkmate. Everything is nothingness and silence, the universe now a place in which God plays no discernible role and provides no safety net. But Block will not stop asking questions despite the insistent silence and Bergman handles the futility of this quest with both gravity and humour.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Bergman’s supreme achievement in the power of ‘wordless’ cinema, Persona (1966) embodies the failure of language in its extreme form. Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), an actress, suddenly and inexplicably finds she can’t speak during a performance of the play Electra. She is hospitalised and months pass with no medical finding of physical or mental illness. She can’t or simply won’t talk again. Her doctor (Margaretha Krook) suggests this is an annihilation of the self in a world that requires us to wear a mask: “you can be immobile, you can fall silent, then at least you don’t lie.” Communication through speech, as Bergman presents it here, is an already compromised endeavour, linked with duplicity and deception.

Elisabet retreats to the doctor’s summer home with an eager nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson). Alma is desperate to talk, unburdening herself and filling the silence. “I think you’re the first person who’s listened to me,” she tells Elisabet, and that she feels connected in a way she never has before. But despite Alma’s pleas (“Can one live at all without talking freely?”) there is no change for Elisabet and she continues to resist language, making a mockery of this bond. Alma becomes increasingly unhinged; an excess of words as she speaks for both of them blurring their personas, marking her own descent into a sort of madness.

Persona (1966)

Perhaps Elisabet’s silence is the only choice conceivable in a world coming undone, for what words can ever adequately describe or wrestle with the horrors of the Holocaust or Vietnam War. Can there only be silent mourning and muted grief for what we can never understand? Bergman seems to be grappling with this question when Elisabet finds a photo of Polish Jews, their arms lifted in fearful surrender as the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated. He lets the camera sit squarely on it as Elisabet looks. We look with her as the camera focuses closely on a young boy, a German soldier’s gun trained at his back, forcing us to acknowledge God’s absence in this human calamity, to hear the voices of the many who must have cried out for help and were met with silence.

In Bergman’s hands, this wordless moment is almost unbearable. He asks us to face difficult truths that echo loud and long in the silence. But ultimately it is the act of looking that matters – as if through a glass darkly we gaze not only at the cinema screen but also into ourselves.

A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in June 2015 for their season of screenings ‘Essential Bergman.’