“The Silence,” a starkly beautiful yet bleakly hopeless police procedural, opens with a child’s rape and murder in a German field in 1986. There’s no question of “who done it” here. We see all too clearly the murderer (Ulrich Thomsen), a caretaker from a nearby apartment complex.
So does the murderer’s friend and fellow pedophile Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), who stands by helplessly yet complicit in the crime. Here’s a man whose own sexual predilections are less appalling than his failure to stop or report the killing, which he doesn’t condone. That Timo is so disgusted by the murder that he quits his friend, leaving town, doesn’t begin to let him off the hook.
Timo’s silence is awful, and deafening.
Suddenly, the film jumps forward to 2009, when, 23 years to the day after the first crime, a second murder of a young girl is committed and in the exact same spot. “But why?” asks Krischan (Burghart Klaussner), the detective who handled the old, unsolved case, and who, despite his recent retirement, jumps back into the fresh investigation. His question isn’t existential. Though there are overtones to the film that hint at life’s meaninglessness, “The Silence” does ultimately answer Krischan’s question, if in a way that is staggering in its sadness and lack of conventional closure.
This is film noir at its noirest.
As “The Silence” progresses, others besides Krischan are drawn into a re-examination of the past, including Timo, who, after moving to a nearby town, has changed his last name, married and is now the father of two small children. Elena (Katrin Sass), the mother of the first dead girl, is also forced to confront all her old grief.
Frankly, it never really left her. Elena still lives in a house with her daughter’s bedroom untouched, like a shrine, since the day she died. When a young detective who has just lost his wife to cancer (Sebastian Blomberg) asks Elena when the pain of loss begins to subside, she answers, bluntly, “Never.”
Life, as seen through the frame of this story, is something to be endured, not lived. We’re shown small rays of hope: a pregnant policewoman (Jule Bowe); a child on a trampoline; the parents who wait, against their better judgment, for word that their daughter is merely missing. But those flashes of sun are choked by gathering clouds. The sense of dread is pervasive, and coolly encroaching.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Baran bo Odar (from a novel by Jan Costin Wagner), “The Silence” is something of a thriller, albeit an unorthodox one. Although we know who all the players are from the get-go, watching them move about the narrative chessboard — in ways that feel both strategic and fatally pre-ordained — is almost unbearably suspenseful.
There’s an unblinking stillness to Odar’s camerawork that heightens the creepy mood. Whether we’re watching the mundane spinning of an electric fan or the handle of a knife ominously peeking out of the killer’s pocket as he’s interrogated by a cop, everything seems to hint, inevitably, at some some horrible, unhappy ending.
“The Silence” satisfies, not by giving us the climax we want, deserve, or have seen before, but the one that we know, with a sinking feeling, is coming.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Contains disturbing thematic material, violence, obscenity, sensuality and brief nudity. In German with English subtitles. 119 minutes.