Is silence torture or transcendence? Film scholar Phoebe Pua examines the presence of metaphysical silence in the cinemas of the two great auteurs Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. Foregrounding essential similarities and differences, Phoebe explores the complex duality of silence and asks whether silence is intrinsically empty or expressive.
SILENCE IN CINEMA
It was the 1950s: Ingmar Bergman had just gain international recognition as a Swedish auteur and Andrei Tarkovsky enrolled as a film student in Moscow. In thirty years, the two would become resolute admirers of each other. Bergman would come to consider Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублёв, 1966) as one of the greatest films ever made and, in listing his top ten films, Tarkovsky would name three by Bergman—Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963) and Persona (1966). But beyond developing this mutual professional regard, the two directors would eventually converge in conviction of the intimate relationship between the existential and the religious/spiritual. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that, throughout their careers, both directors would persistently engage with one of the post-war period’s most distressing dilemmas—the silence of God.
As the dust of the Second World War began to settle, Europe was forced to confront the devastation wreaked within and beyond its borders. The unprecedented bloodshed honed previously blunt questions of God’s benevolence and existence, culminating in the burning question, where is God in all this horror? Although Friedrich Nietzsche had long declared God to be dead (in 1882), it had become exponentially more apparent that a complete collapse of religious certainties was imminent. For if God existed, surely the war would have compelled him to reveal himself. Yet, amidst the wreckage, no God could be seen.
From this arose a premise upon which Bergman and Tarkovsky would launch their most existential films— should the silence of God be considered irrefutable evidence of his non-existence?
Before understanding how metaphysical silence is depicted in cinema, close attention must be paid to the sonic aspects of the film medium, especially the presentation of acoustic (or literal) silence. Silence, as we commonly understand it, is less an acoustic phenomenon than a metaphor. Similarly, silence in cinema is seldom portrayed through the complete absence of sound. On a technical level, to punctuate a film’s soundtrack with even a moment of absolute silence is to interrupt, abruptly, its auditory flow. As such, cinematic silences are most often conveyed figuratively through layering room tone (sound produced by the movement of air particles in a given space) with occasional addition of foley sounds (sound effects created in post-production). As Lisa Coulthard perceptively notes, the sound of silence in film is “a constructed and fabricated effect of silence”, something Michel Chion refers to as “the impression of silence”. Given this, to mention silence is also to acknowledge its symbiotic relationship with sound. Since its premiere in 1952, John Cage’s experimental composition, 4’ 33’’, has brought to attention to the non-silent nature of what is usually perceived as silence. In cinema, ‘silence’ has been, and continues to be, used as an umbrella term to describe everything from an absolute silence to an orchestrated impression of silence.
It is precisely the film medium’s fertile acoustic soil which Bergman and Tarkovsky ploughed, mimicking metaphysical silence through manipulating cinematic soundscapes and, in doing so, revealing their individual interpretations of silence. Through a sound-based analysis of just three key scenes from their immense oeuvres, one is able to examine how the two directors each portrayed acoustic silences and thus explain why they understood metaphysical silence so differently.
To watch any of Bergman’s films is to know that he was no stranger to spiritual or existential angst. His preoccupation with the certainty of God’s existence can be traced back to the first film he wrote and directed, Prison (Fängelse, 1949). In this early film, Bergman had already engaged with questions that would reappear in later work, foremost of them the idea of a world without God. As one character declares, “After life there is only death. That is really all you need to know." But in The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957), arguably Bergman’s most famous work, this idea is explored in greatest depth and complexity.
The Seventh Seal tells of a medieval knight, Antonius (Max von Sydow), returning home from the Crusades to find his country ravaged by the plague. As he journeys homeward, Antonius is accosted by Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure, who has come to claim his life. In an effort to stave off death, Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess—creating the most enduring and iconic image of Bergman’s career. The film follows Antonius as he continues homeward in between chess moves, traversing the Swedish landscape and witnessing the wretched nature of human existence.
Set in medieval Sweden, The Seventh Seal is an allegory of the modern age. Antonius is a surrogate for post-war audiences in the late 1950s, returning from the Crusades as they were recovering from the chaos. Both were made to confront the absurdity of human experience and demanded explanations for divine indifference to human suffering. In the first lines of the film, an omniscient narrator reads from the Book of Revelation:
Through these lines, the film creates a mirror of the post-war modern world: saturated with silence, apocalypse and death. As in Prison, the absurd cruelty of existence emerges from recognition of a God who is silent. At its peak, The Seventh Seal’s existential malaise is most plainly depicted during Antonius’s aching confession, one of the film’s key scenes.
The scene begins with Antonius and his aide, a squire named Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), riding toward a church. The church bells ring out, signifying the beginning of a service and calling to the town’s people to come. But upon arrival, the pair see that there is neither priest nor congregation. Within the confession chamber, Antonius spots a shadow and enters into a confession. Here he engages Death, whom he mistakenly believes to be a priest, in conversation and proclaims the private anguish of a man searching for an elusive God. Before long, Antonius’s moody lamentation erupts into an angst-ridden confrontation demanding assurance of God’s existence:
[Scene of Antonius's Confession, note in particular 00:00 to 01:55 minutes]
KNIGHT. I want to talk to you as openly as I can, but my heart is empty. DEATH does not answer. [silence] KNIGHT. The emptiness is a mirror turned towards my own face. I see myself in it, and I am filled with fear and disgust. DEATH does not answer. [silence] . . . KNIGHT. I want knowledge. DEATH. You want guarantees? KNIGHT. Call it whatever you like. Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles? DEATH does not answer. [silence] KNIGHT. How can we have faith in those who believe when we can't have faith in ourselves? What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but aren't able to? And what is to become of those who neither want to nor are capable of believing? The KNIGHT stops and waits for a reply, but no one speaks or answers him. There is complete silence. KNIGHT. Why can't I kill God within me? Why does He live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart? Why, in spite of everything, is He a baffling reality that I can’t shake off? Do you hear me?
Antonius’s (noted in the screenplay as “KNIGHT”) barrage of questions bespeaks his frustration at the silence of God. His questions are rhetorical; he often does not wait for Death to provide him answers, instead incrementally poses one question after the other. In his screenplay, Bergman made explicit the need for Death to remain mute in response to Antonius’s questions, in effect generating laden moments of “complete silence”.
The film’s soundscape, however, notably departs from the screenplay’s calls for silence. From the moment Antonius steps into the church, the solemn chimes of a single church bell can be heard and persists long into his confession. In using the chimes in lieu of Death’s spoken replies, the film positions the bell as answering Antonius. At an allegorical level, the chimes force Antonius to confront the silence of God. They are the only answers he receives and, even then, these ‘answers’ do not come from a divine source but a man-made symbol of God’s call. The bell’s momentary and isolated chimes amplify the scene’s otherwise lack of sound, causing the silences between the sound intervals to reverberate. Through a combination of the sparse soundscape and the incremental rhythm of his questions, Antonius’s frustration is presented as amplified and mounting. The film’s sparse soundscape, though technically not silent, creates an impression of silence, which performs Antonius’s existential void. When he seeks comfort in confessing his darkest anxieties, there is no priest to hear him, only Death (also silent) and the vacant sounds of church bells. To Bergman, there is no clearer evidence of the death of God than this metaphorical and metaphysical silence.
Starting here in The Seventh Seal, silence within Bergman’s cinema comes to be understood as absence and loneliness. The film marks the beginning of a period where Bergman repeatedly sought explanations for God’s apparent absence from the world, as well as answers to how one should live amidst the silence.
The intensity of Bergman’s engagement with metaphysical silence in The Seventh Seal is perhaps rivaled only by one other film: Winter Light. While The Seventh Seal covers a days-long epic journey across Sweden, this film takes place over a single afternoon in a wintry, rural town. It follows Reverend Tomas Eriksson (Gunnar Björnstrand) as he struggles between ministering a dwindling congregation and his own deepening spiritual crisis. Furthering the disconcerting revelations of The Seventh Seal, Winter Light questions the lack of meaning of human existence in a Godless world in a most forthright manner.
Bergman’s masterful use of silence finds voice in a key scene mid-way through the film. As Jonas, a member of Tomas’s congregation, approaches him for comfort from depression, what begins as a counseling session soon spirals into Tomas’s confession of his own spiritual doubt. When asked, “Why do we have to go on living?”, Tomas can neither answer it nor hold his congregant’s gaze. Unable to attain answers, Jonas asks to leave, but Tomas begs him to stay:
[Scene of Tomas's Confession, note in particular 04:33 to end]
TOMAS. Please stay a little bit longer. Let’s have a nice calm discussion. JONAS nods but does not speak; he averts his eyes and stands with his back to Tomas TOMAS. Forgive me for talking in a confused manner, but all this suddenly hit me. JONAS is silent and emotionless; his eyes and body is turned away. TOMAS. If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Tomas looks to Jonas. JONAS does not move or speak. TOMAS. Life becomes something we can understand. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness, and fear, all these things would be straightforward and transparent. Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation. There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design. JONAS leaves as Tomas watches him. A close up on Tomas as he watches; light streams in from a nearby window and illuminates his face. TOMAS. God, why have you forsaken me?
When Tomas utters, “God, why have you forsaken me?”, it immediately brings to mind the crucifixion of Christ. The same phrase was uttered by Christ before he expired, one of what are known as the Seven Last Words. Its significance is exemplified by the fact that it appears in at least three different biblical passages—Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 and Psalms 22:1. Its appearance here bespeaks Tomas’s and Christ’s shared experience of abandonment, silence and loneliness. Later on, the film reveals that, after leaving the church, Jonas commits suicide. The scene appears to be the cinematic equivalent of Bergman’s arrival at an absolute existential nadir.
Combining the bleak narrative arc where silence permeates the character’s dialogue and the arid wintry landscape where sounds are muffled by thick snow, Winter Light’s soundscape becomes sparser than in any previous film. Furthermore, the encounter between Tomas and his congregant takes place inside the Reverend’s chamber where the only audible sounds are of the door (creaking when opened and closed) and the constant ticking of a clock. In the first few moments of the scene, there is a quick cut to a close-up shot of the clock which draws attention to its loud ticking. When the two men begin speaking, the ticking continues but becomes steadily softer until it is inaudible. By the time Tomas unburdens himself to his congregant, the latter has withdrawn into silence and the ticking is completely absent. In this ‘reversed’ confession scene, Tomas’s words exist in a soundscape emptier than that of the confession scene in The Seventh Seal. The silence is no longer a metaphorical impression of silence but an absolute acoustic silence, one that is as significant as it is intentional. In the film, the necessity of silence as noted in Bergman’s screenplay was faithfully implemented:
Complete silence. He drags himself over to the window. No car, no traces. Not a sound. The snow falls softly and steadily. God’s silence, Christ twisted face, the blood on the brow and hands, the soundless shriek behind the bared teeth. God’s silence.
Here, the silence of God is no longer depicted through symbolic sounds of bell chimes and impressions of silence. Bergman and sound mixer Stig Flodin systematically eliminated sound elements until absolute silence was achieved. When Tomas walks out from his chamber, he utters, “I’m free now. Free at last” and weeps. He has literally heard the absolute emptiness of God’s silence and has finally witnessed the hollowness of religious platitudes and promises. In contrast to his biblical namesake, Winter Light’s doubting T(h)omas is liberated from his existential crisis by acknowledging the death of God. As Märta (Ingrid Thulin), Tomas’s atheist lover asserts: “God hasn’t ever spoken, because God doesn’t exist. It’s as simple as that."
At the end of Winter Light, Bergman remained painfully unable to reconcile the silence of God with the existence of God. In The Silence, the film immediately following Winter Light, the God question is omitted from its central narrative and, in later films, Bergman’s preoccupations gradually shifted from the heavily metaphysical to the purely existential. The mid-1960s marked the end of an era in Bergman’s cinema; as Hamish Ford highlights, “the place of religion [in] Bergman’s earlier work . . . is in Persona [(1966)] taken over by secular discourses”.
In opposition to Bergman, Tarkovsky approached the possible death of God as an exercise in faith. He stated in an interview, “When I was very young I asked my father, ‘Does God exist—yes or no?’ And he answered me brilliantly: ‘for the unbeliever, no, for the believer, yes!”. Tarkovsky conceived of faith as an act that was not only irrational but actively anti-rational, arguing that if one held a particular belief because one had a rational reason to do so, it was then not faith but simply logic. Contrary to Bergman’s cinema, faith in Tarkovsky’s films is not the cause of spiritual and existential malaise, but is instead the solution to it.
However, while Tarkovsky argued for the necessity of having faith, his films exhibit an acute awareness of its difficulty. Tarkovsky’s final three films—Stalker (Сталкер, 1979), Nostalghia (1983, and The Sacrifice (Offret, 1986)— are open admissions of this, but even in earlier films, Tarkovsky’s protagonists constantly struggled with maintaining faith in the face of metaphysical silence. This is particularly true in Solaris (Солярис, 1972), where the protagonist has to choose between returning to the cold reality of everyday and remaining within the comforting world of illusions.
A similar tale unfolds in one of Tarkovsky’s most well-known films, Stalker. There, a man—known only as Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky)— earns his living as a guide, taking paying visitors through a prohibited wilderness called the Zone. It is purported that in the heart of the Zone there is a ‘Room’, which possesses the mysterious ability to grant a person’s deepest desires, a belief Stalkers holds onto dearly despite the lack of visible or tangible evidence. The film has been interpreted in many ways—as another of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films, as an allegory of the Soviet gulags, as a comment on Soviet society and more—but at its core Stalker is a tale of pilgrimage. The film was adapted from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel, Roadside Picnic (1972), but in its final film form, resembles a parable of spirituality more than a work of science fiction. Though Stalker does not question the existence of God and the relevance of faith in the verbally explicit way that Antonius or Tomas do, the film is as engaged with discussions of metaphysical silence as The Seventh Seal and Winter Light. Analogies are easily drawn between the invisibility and intangibility of the Zone and the Room’s alleged powers and Antonius and Tomas’s hidden and silent God. This is particularly evident in one of Stalker’s key scenes depicting the arrival of Stalker and his visitors, Writer and Professor, in the Zone.
[Arrival at the Zone, note in particular 00:00 to 01:30 and 05:50 to 06:50 minutes]
STALKER. Right, we’re home! WRITER. Phew, at last. HE also slides down from the trolley, and Professor follows. PROFESSOR: It’s so quiet… STALKER. The quietest place on earth, there’s nobody to make any noise. Stalker is excited. His nostrils are flared, his eyes shining. You’ll soon see. It’s amazingly beautiful here—bizarre!
As the trio journey from the city to the Zone, the scene abruptly cuts from sepia to color. A point of view shot places the audience within this visually lush natural world brimming with trees, overgrown grass and rotting wood. As the trio (and audiences) taken in their first glimpses of the Zone, the soundscape is of absolute acoustic silence. But before long, the natural mise-en-scène is acoustically reinforced by off-screen organic sounds of animals that are heard but never shown and insects that are too small to be visible.
Once the group disembarks from the railcar, Stalker excuses himself and treks deep into the untamed tall grass. In a patch of green, Stalker kneels as if in prayer and then lies face down in the grass. Stalker is surrounded by the silence of the Zone, but this silence comprises the organic sounds of rustling and insect calls. As he is stretched out in the tall grass, eyes closed and completely still, the soundscape becomes increasingly prominent. On a sonic level, the prominence of organic sounds underscores the lack of extrinsic sound. This in turn forms an impression of silence, which is perceived as familiar and infinitely comforting. Stalker’s use of sound, particularly off-screen sound, highlights spatial positivity and suggests a space, which is not empty and desolate but one brimming with organic presence, with life. Eduard Artemeyev, the film’s sound designer and composer, recalled Tarkovsky’s direction to not compose music for Stalker but to “orchestrate” the sounds of the physical surroundings.
Despite the constellation of sounds, Stalker remarks that the Zone is “the quietest place on earth”. Contrary to silence in Bergman’s comparatively sparse sound design, silence as presented in Stalker comprises complex layers of sound. Here, silence does not indicate absence and loneliness but instead connotes saturation and stillness. For Tarkovsky the myriad of organic sounds are answers in amidst metaphysical silence and affirms his faith. This interpretation of silence is in alignment with what Søren Kierkegaard expresses in his treatise, The Lily of the Field and the Bird in the Air (1849).
There is silence out there, and not only when everything is silent in the silent night, but there nevertheless is silence out there also when day vibrates with a thousand strings and everything is like a sea of sound. Each one separately does it so well that not one of them, nor all of them together, will break the solemn silence. There is silence out there. The forest is silent; even when it whispers it nevertheless is silent . . . The sea is silent; even when it rages uproariously it is silent . . . [If] you take time and listen more carefully. . . you hear silence, because uniformity is nevertheless also silence. . . . you cannot say this bellowing or this voice disturbs the silence. No, this belongs to the silence, is in a mysterious and thus in turn silent harmony with the silence; this increases it . . . it is silent, but its silence is expressive.
Kierkegaard calls attention the ‘silence’ of nature and confirms the existence and manifestation of the divine, of God, through it. Out in nature with the lily and the bird, both Kierkegaard and Tarkovsky become aware of the metaphysical by eagerly assuming the position of a listener. Through sonically complex constructions of silence, the Zone comes alive and becomes animate. A tiny worm crawls onto Stalker’s finger, as if nature has started to claim him and will eventually consume him. It is clear that Stalker conceives of the Zone as an Eden and desires immersion in it. By the time Stalker returns to the visitors, he is completely refreshed and exclaims, “The flowers are in bloom here once more!" It is worth noting that this is the first, and perhaps the only time, that we see Stalker smile. He is exhilarated by the bustling stillness of the Zone; it is as if he has entered his sacred sanctuary, his Eden. Here, the individual is not tormented by silence, but comforted. In silence, Stalker (and Tarkovsky) finds peace and spiritual affirmation.
CINEMAS OF SILENCE
As Bergman relentlessly sought evidence and repeatedly found none, the use of sound elements in his films became increasingly minimal. The soundscapes retreated into themselves until absolute silence became the dominant ‘sound’, mirroring metaphysical silence and God’s absence from the human world. In comparison, Tarkovsky’s films featured more layered soundscapes. While the soundscapes of his films often sought to create an impression of silence, as Bergman’s films do, they were paradoxically dynamic and technically complex. Metaphysical silence in Tarkovsky’s films was not perceived as empty but expressive.
In rejecting suggestion that his films were reminiscent of Bergman’s, Tarkovsky argued, “when Bergman speaks of God it’s to say that he is silent, that he’s not there”. Despite the irrefutable similarities in themes and concerns explored in their work, Tarkovsky’s assertion is unassailable. But perhaps their deepest affinity is a shared knowledge of and dexterity in film sound. Des O’Rawe insightfully summarizes Bergman’s cinema as “not a silent cinema [but] a cinema of silence” and the same can undoubtedly be said of Tarkovsky, albeit in a strikingly different way.
References  Lisa Coulthard, “Listening to Silence: The Films of Michael Haneke,” Cinephile 6.1 (2010): 21. Michel Chion, Audio-vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia UP, 1994), 57.  Quoted from the Criterion DVD of Prison.  Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal, trans. Lars Malmström and David Kushner, (London: Lorrimer, 1960), 28  Ingmar Bergman, A Film Trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly, The Communicants (Winter Light), The Silence, trans. P. B. Austin, (London: Calder and Boyars, 1967), 74.  Quoted from the Criterion DVD of Winter Light.  Ibid., 87.  Ibid., 87.  Ibid., 87.  Ibid., 78.  Hamish Ford, Post-War Modernist Cinema and Philosophy: Confronting Negativity and Time, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 35.  John Gianvito, Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews, (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2006), 197.  Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky: Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios, (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 389.  Quoted from the Criterion DVD of Solaris.  Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky: Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios, (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 389.  Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority: Kierkegaard’s Writings, XVIII, eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997), 13.  Ibid., 390.  John Gianvito, Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews, (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2006),180-181.  Des O’Rawe, “The Great Secret: Silence, Cinema, and Modernism”, Screen 47.4 (2006): 404.