Horror films make us feel safe. Despite the genre’s propensity to make an audience jump, squirm, and occasionally avert their eyes, horror provides comfort in its baseline formula. There is a real appeal in approaching evil in the confines of fiction, to look at it in its most confined and caged form. This allows the viewer to experience the danger, the darkness, and the fear without every really feeling threatened by it. A killer, a ghost, and even the occasional vampire allows the horror audience to trigger that base fear of evil without ever giving it any power. Real horror, real evil, however, is not nearly as comforting. Real evil is hidden right under the surface, right in our neighbor’s smiling face as they mow the lawn. Real evil is never really noticed until it’s too late. It’s this kind of evil, the frighteningly real variety, that Baran bo Odar’s The Silence(Das Letzte Schweigen) concerns itself with.
The Silence is a 2010 German film that is just preparing to see a release in the U.S. in 2013. That three year distribution gap is all the more puzzling when you see the film. From the opening shots, and their patient portrayal of atmosphere, to the chilling narrative it is obvious that Odar has created a masterful film. That’s right, I threw out “masterful” and I damn well mean it. In the first ten minutes we get a confident director that allows the camera to dwell on the environment we find ourselves in. From the fan, the swaying curtains, and to the sounds of children playing, Odar seems intent on letting us dwell for a bit before the truly horrific occurs. The camera forces the audience to realize that these mundane moments of real life are sometimes the lulling veneer of an insidious underbelly. These mundane things occur before, during, and after a death/murder. The Silence allows that fact to punch us in the face, making everything, all of our surroundings, unsettling and mournful.
In The Silence, when the horrific happens, it really happens. I won’t discuss the plot or the evil acts within this film, but let it suffice to say they are very real and very disturbing. When your monster stands, heaving above his disgusting act whispering, “I’m sorry”, you know this is not a standard, comforting horror film. This evil is not contained by horror tropes. Nor is Odar particular interested in holding our hand in comfort, trying to make the horror anymore palatable.
Part of the cinematic approach of Odar that makes the film feel so desperate, sad, and hopeless is his very intentional camerawork. A large portion of the film is in slow motion, especially the moments of grief. The grief of family, of parents, of a community aren’t sped through. Instead, they are intentionally slowed down to make sure we understand and feel the repercussions of real evil. Another cinematic choice is to put the camera high. Many times it sweeps over the landscape from above as if it was some form of deity looking on, seeing the grand scope of human sin.
That exploration of human sin, the propensity for evil, is really what makes The Silence such a successful, and disturbing, piece of filmmaking. We not only see the monster we inhabit the same space as him for a large portion of the movie. But this monster isn’t a Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, he is just a man fighting the evil within himself. It is far more disturbing to entertain the fact that all acts of evil are not committed by a masked symbol of pure evil. They are committed by a person, a person someone knows and loves. Someone that is not purely evil, but completely capable of it; like most of humanity.
The Silence is not a morality tale, parable, or a titular exploration of the forbidden. The Silence is the story of how a normal man can commit the darkest of evil acts, and how that act affects all of us. True, that will never make the audience feel comfort, never allow us to safely flirt with the danger and darkness of horror with a smile. When in the hands of a talent like Odar, however, it does allow the audience to sit through a taut, engaging thriller that also forces us to look at the real evil in the world, and to acknowledge it. While The Silence may not be the film you were looking for, but you’ll surely be grateful that you found it.