When it’s at its worst, grief does not come in waves. It’s more like a flood, or a torrent: relentless and inescapable. There are few solaces – a lover, maybe, or an obsession – but even then the grief pushes harder and harder until there’s no alternative beyond acceptance. All the characters in the German film The Silence are experiencing some degree of grief. Some yearn for a lost relative, whereas others cannot get over their failures or primal urges. For all its misery, director Baran bo Odar avoids manipulation at every turn, and instead constructs a melancholy thriller about two horrendous crimes.
In 1986, Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) rapes and murders an 11 year old girl. Paralyzed with fear, Peer’s friend Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring) witnesses the whole thing and helps dispose of the body (weeks go by before she’s found). Twenty-three years later, Timo has moved on with his life. He has a good job, a wife, and children. On the news one night, he sees a report of another girl gone missing. The particulars of the crime are an exact replica of what Timo witnessed all those years ago, and his life goes into a tailspin. But he’s not the only who feels the impact from her disappearance: her parents nearly go mad with worry, and the lead investigator on the 1986 case (Burghart Klaußner) springs into action. The cops do the best they can with no strong leads, but their smartest detective David (Sebastian Blomberg) is still reeling from the loss of his wife.
As a procedural, The Silence unspools at a steady, deliberate pace. There are no magical clues, and the only break in the case happens after hours of tedious paper work. What interests Odar more is the spaces in between big events: there are long scenes where the characters simply do not want to do with themselves, and their doubt casts a gnawing dread over the action. An important character is Elena (Katrin Saß), the mother of the first slain girl, and in the aftermath of the new crime she strikes up an unlikely relationship based on mutual loss.
Elena’s grief and those of the other parents are familiar territory – parts of The Silence bear a striking resemblance to 2003’s Mystic River – so it’s David and Timo who make this mystery unique. Sadness overcomes David to the point where he loses control of his muscles, yet there is sharp mind underneath his overwhelming emotion. Timo is worse off: his feelings about the 1986 death were long dormant, and he does not know what to do with them. Möhring is a powerful actor, and he does not apologize for Timo’s mistakes; instead, he shows us a man for whom decency gives way to doubt and the self-loathing. He finds a solution, ultimately, but does not consider how deeply his actions affect others.
Odar handles all this material with patience and tact. A title card counts off each day after the second disappearance, and the corresponding helicopter shot casts a menacing pall over what happens. Odar’s depiction of the first rape and murder is haunting because, crucially, we see it unfold from Timo’s perspective. Peer takes the girl into a field, and we see glimpses of his brutality between reeds of sun-kissed grain. There are lots of close-ups, though they’re never extreme. We watch the characters as a sympathetic friend might, the kind who does not know what to say. During the climax, there are separate interrogations that build suspense by playing off each other. The way they pay off is atypical of murder mysteries, so the satisfaction comes from layers of dramatic irony.
Strong actors are necessary for this heavy material, and Odar’s ensemble fits together nicely. There are several important characters, and while some of them never meet, they’re all given their due because of what befalls them. The Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen is terrific as Peer: we see the monster at his core, yet everything else about him is ordinary, even bland. Elena and David have an important scene together, one where they calmly discuss grieving. Elena has had for twenty three years for what is relatively new for David, but the actors sell their feelings with grace. And from his early drunken scene to his final triumph, Klaußner nearly steals the show as a retired sod whose dogged nature gets in the way of good sense.
For all its careful observation and deep empathy, there are moments where The Silence stumbles. Not all the subplots deserve the same attention, and when one cop finds a crucial clue, his subsequent epiphany is too tidy for an investigation that’s otherwise grounded in realism. Still, The Silence is valuable because of how it treats its characters, and how delicately it invites judgment of them. By its final shot, all the characters are lonelier than when they began. We have some solace because we all know they’re experiencing the same thing, even the pedophile, and the tragedy is they do not.