Movie review by Greg Carlson
Based on a popular 2007 novel by Jan Costin Wagner, German-made “The Silence” is an ambitious, accomplished procedural significantly more restrained and purposeful than the majority of its American counterparts. Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Baran bo Odar, the film juggles a potentially precarious number of characters and interlocking storylines to explore the grim and lurid contours of an unsolved rape and murder that eerily, impossibly is recreated almost a quarter of a century later. The Swiss-born writer/director reveals a visceral command of the somber material, and while he does not quite achieve the sustained poise and profundity of Gotz Spielmann’s “Revanche,” his talent is considerable.
The most remarkable dimension of Odar’s work is the inquisitive, non-judgmental manner in which every individual personality is treated. From pedophile to police detective, “The Silence” spends significant time with each of its inhabitants, although the gambit risks occasional audience alienation when some storylines unfold in stronger and less predictable ways than others. Not every viewer will appreciate the constantly shifting point-of-view, a technique that feels more at home on an episodic series like “The Wire,” in which multiple episodes afford an opportunity to fully explore the lives and motivations of those involved in a complex case.
The film’s opening scene establishes the identities of the two men responsible for the killing of 11-year-old Pia in 1986, and that choice shifts audience focus and concern away from the who and toward the inexplicable why. Apartment caretaker Peer Sommer (Ulrich Thomsen), a patient, calculating predator, befriends lonely student Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), instinctively recognizing in the young man a kindred spirit with a similar appetite for vulnerable girls. Peer projects home movie reels of child pornography for Timo, and one afternoon they go hunting, taking advantage of a quiet, seldom traveled road and the unfathomable horror of a child being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Certainly the most thought-provoking figure in “The Silence” is Timo. Though no less guilty than Peer in the assault, Timo does not directly participate, remaining frozen in Peer’s car during the murder of Pia. When reintroduced many years later, we are surprised and taken aback to learn that Timo has become an architect, is married, and has two children. Like Peter Lorre’s unforgettable Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” Timo represents the rare cinematic monster we are not asked to forgive or understand, but whose presence as a human being makes hatred and contempt more difficult propositions.
We are left to wonder why Timo keeps for so long the awful silence referenced in the title, a conspiracy that revisits hell many years later on the people (especially Pia’s mother Elena, played by the sensational Katrin Sass) whose lives were forever changed in an instant. The time-spanning unsolved crime narrative of “The Silence” will remind many of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Memories of Murder,” the latter a direct inspiration noted by Odar. Like Joon-ho Bong’s film, “The Silence” does not provide any comfort or closure in its haunting conclusion, only an invitation to reflect on the nauseating, senseless cruelties that sometimes befall the innocent.