“The Silence” is built around a novel idea: to depict the effect of a murder (two, actually) on everyone immediately impacted by the crime. We spend what seems like equal time with the murderer, his accomplice, the investigators, and the parents of the victims. The film is told with a surprising amount of empathy for all these people, which may enrage viewers who (justifiably) feel that a two-hour piece of dramatic cinema cannot make realistic sense of the mind of a child rapist and murderer.
Such an objection gets at the heart of what’s wrong with “The Silence,” in spite of its inspired concept: these were the wrong crimes to examine in this context, because they’re more the stuff of a serial killer potboiler than true events. Granted, I’m not sure that anyone wants a “Silence of the Lambs” imitator to begin with the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, either—that writer/director Baran bo Odar spares us the imagery is barely a relief, as the sounds alone are horrifying—but the film’s subsequent revelation that the same unsolved crime (minus the rape) has been repeated in the same place, exactly 23 years later, is pure pulp fiction.
And so, bo Odar perpetually shifts between seizing upon the rich possibilities of his film’s multi-perspectival format and reducing the film to paperback-thriller style melodrama. When bo Odar’s camera is with the parents who’ve lost their daughters, or the detective (Sebastian Blomberg) who’s particularly consumed by this case because he knows what it means for a loved one to die prematurely, having just lost his wife to cancer, “The Silence” excels as an intimate view of the ripples of human atrocity. (Though, these are the most familiar, easy-to-play passages of the story.) The film also works when it conveys the grief and paranoia of Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), the man who willingly watched the crime occur 23 years ago.
It’s when Timo reunites with Peer (Ulrich Thomsen), fellow pedophile and untried perpetrator of the original crime, that “The Silence” spirals into hokum. bo Odar attempts to empathize Peer with utterly simplistic pathology, speculating that loneliness was what drove the man to such evil, starkly contrasting his human portraits of the other characters. He does this not to make us better understand the criminal, but to ratchet up the suspense concerning whether Peer was the one who committed the new murder, wasting actor Thomsen’s chilling presence.
Should we be comfortable with the fact that “The Silence” milks such a heinous aggressor for trivial thrills? While I suppose that child rape and murder are no more grotesque than what’s depicted in David Fincher’s serial killer yarn “Se7en,” for instance, the violence in that film was more within the bounds of cinematic/literary tradition. We’re used to it. One could argue that the “The Lovely Bones” is more similar, but in telling that story from the point-of-view of the murdered girl in the afterlife, author Alice Sebold and filmmaker Peter Jackson’s presentation was grounded in impressionism. In “The Silence,” it seems as though bo Odar is suggesting that the audience should be creeped-out-in-that-good-thriller-way during the flashbacks in which Timo and Peer watch 8mm copies of illicit pornography, which doesn’t sit well with me.
Still, despite my objections, if the ingeniously structured “The Silence” does anything to push the crime genre away from the cat-and-mouse, investigator-murderer dynamic that’s currently hegemonic, it will have done a positive service. The film is also a valuable indicator that we should keep an eye on bo Odar and particularly cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer, because for all its narrative problems, it’s one of the most aesthetically assured pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in some time. Chalk it up as a learning experience.