Northern Europe is undoubtedly a beautiful place full of very friendly people. But those Nordic countries sure as hell know how to craft a dark, grim, soul-destroying crime film. Kinda makes you wonder. From 1988’s The Vanishing to 1997’s Insomnia to 2009’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Europe’s frosty tips have given the world a wealth of blood-chilling murder scenes. The shot-in-Germany thriller The Silence may hail from a bit farther south, but that wintry sense of northern nihilism still oozes from its pores.
Written and directed by first-time Swiss filmmaker Baran bo Odar (and adapted from the novel by Jan Costin Wagner), The Silence looks gorgeous and summery with its sun-dappled fields of Bavarian wheat. But it hides plenty of shadowy, icy secrets. The film starts off in July of 1986. Inspired by some unsavory pornography, pedophilia-minded pals Peer (incredible Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen from The Celebration and “Banshee”) and Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring, Valkyrie) stalk an 11-year-old girl named Pia into the countryside. Peer, unable to control himself, rapes and kills the girl. Paralyzed by fear and his own hidden desires, Timo simply watches. He doesn’t participate. But he doesn’t stop Peer either. Not even when Peer freaks out and hatches a plan to dispose of the body. Obviously Timo never tells anyone about the heinous crime, because 23 years later, it remains unsolved.
Today the town and its residents are clearly still haunted by this horrible crime—mostly because it lacks the healing catharsis of a clear-cut ending. The dead girl’s mother (Katrin Sass from Good Bye Lenin!) regularly replaces the flowers on a makeshift cross at the site of her murder and keeps her old bedroom like an untouched shrine. Krischan (Burghart Klaussner), the lead detective in the case, has been unable to get the whole incident out of his head—despite retiring from the force after 44 years.
The July 8 anniversary of the killing rolls around, and to everyone’s shock a 13-year-old girl named Sinikka goes missing at the exact same spot under eerily similar circumstances. Wounds that have yet to scab over are ripped wide. It’s not bad enough that this has happened once to these people. It’s now happening all over again. And worst of all, it may go unresolved yet again.
Into the middle of this frighteningly familiar missing person case comes emotionally brittle David (Sebastian Blomberg, The Baader Meinhof Complex). He’s a police investigator who’s been off the job since his wife’s death from cancer six months previous. His first day back, he’s thrust right into the investigation, and it’s clear from the start he’s not ready for it. Nonetheless he takes the case personally, teaming up with Krischan and hoping to find some scrap of a clue that was overlooked the first time around.
That the same killer is at work is evident to everyone—especially Timo, who fled town years ago and tried his best to live a normal life, marrying a nice girl, having a couple of cute kids and getting a good career as an architect. But the disappearance of young Sinikka brings the memory of that hot July day racing back to him—reminding him that he’s not the normal family man he’s pretending to be.
The Silence spends only a portion of its runtime as a police procedural. Most of the time it’s more concerned with the collateral damage of these events. It plays out a bit like the good parts of season 1 of AMC’s “The Killing” (itself based on a 2007 Danish production). We see and feel the effect on the detectives, on the victims, on the families and even on the killer himself. Nobody likes pain and misery, and everyone wants to cover it up. Even, it seems, those who inflict it in the first place. The crimes depicted in The Silence are disturbing, but the film is relatively bloodless, spending little time on the grisly details. The crimes, in fact, are all the more disturbing for the blunt, matter-of-fact way in which they are presented. But it’s the emotional and psychological weight of death that matters most here. It’s bearing down heavily on everyone in the cast. Pia’s mother is unable to move on thanks to her daughter’s brutal demise. Krischan is a raging mess of guilt because he failed to find the killer. David is forever on the edge of a breakdown thanks to his wife’s passing. Even Timo is tearing himself apart knowing what happened 23 years ago—and what his unwillingness to speak might have spawned.
Visually The Silence is vivid and quite beautifully mounted. Scriptwise it’s a bit more subtle. The thematic connections between characters are slow to click into place. But as they do, the film becomes a taut, gripping look at a bunch of expertly acted characters desperate for some sort of closure. The film may not offer all of them exactly what they’re looking for, but in the process it gives viewers a bracing blast of Euro-style crime and punishment.
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