“If Godard reveals what Benjamin calls ‘the beauty’ of recognizing that twentieth-century art has to become more than a parable, Bergman offers a vision of ‘the misery’: the desperate, impossible effort to find some kind of truth in a text that offers only transmissibility.”
The introduction to Susan Sontag’s On Photography praises the now-famous scene in Godard’s Les Carabiniers when two recently decommissioned soldiers, eager to show their family all the possessions they’ve acquired at war, pull out a suitcase full of photographs. The two soldiers, Ulysses and Michel-Ange, seem to believe that having a photograph of something is equivalent to possessing the thing itself, a ridiculous yet fascinating error that, according to Sontag, demonstrates the peculiar power of photography. Sontag writes that “Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image . . . Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power” (3-4). The most obvious and most tantalizing ambiguity in Sontag’s final sentence concerns the nature of the “certain relation,” the one that only “feels like knowledge — and therefore, like power.” And the essays that compose Sontag’s book, with titles like “The Heroism of Vision” and “Photographic Evangels,” coalesce around the project of unpacking the “certain relation” photographs have to the world. But insofar as the quotation’s final sentence still refers to Les Carabiniers, it is necessary to unpack another term as well. In the context of Godard’s film, it is not just the relation of photographs to the world that is ambiguous. The nature of “the world” itself remains to be defined.
The images that Ulysses and Michel-Ange proudly display are instantly recognizable to viewers: one set of photographs shows Versailles, Westminster Bridge, Victor Emmanuel’s tomb, Stuttgart Station, the Hilton Hotel of Berlin, the Chicago Aquarium, and the Santa Cruz Hospital. The world to which these photographs relate is our own. And yet it is strangely not the film’s own: besides brief images of Michel-Ange photographing the Sphinx and the two soldiers saluting the Statue of Liberty, we have not seen the characters interact with any identifiable landmarks; what is more, there is something about the idea that doesn’t quite add up. In the world where Ulysses and Michel-Ange live, an all-powerful ruler referred to only as “the King” mobilizes a peasant population to enlarge his vast empire: surely this is the world of allegory, of fable, one that distinguishes itself from our own not only by its fictionality, but by its alienating universality. But here, all of a sudden, are the specifics of our world. The photographs are not just visions of cosmopolitan expansiveness that Ulysses and Michel-Ange take back to their peasant shack, but also souvenirs of our reality Godard unexpectedly introduces into theirs. Like the sudden appearance of recognizable city names (Rostov, Santa Cruz) within the otherwise geographically amorphous empire, the photographs simultaneously break the integrity of the film’s world and reach beyond it to touch our own.
Of course, as Sontag points out, the photographs are fictional. Even the characters acknowledge that they are only stand-ins, “deeds” to hold onto until the real things are available. But the fiction in which they engage is distinct from the allegorical mode: it is a seemingly accurate representation of the world we consider real, rather than the self-consciously staged presentation of a world we know to be fictional. And where allegory erases specificity, so that characters and events can represent abstract ideas, the photographs depict specific objects with no decipherable abstract significance. It is impossible to fit the photograph scene into any allegorical reading of the film, since the logic of interpretation it encourages — focused on questions of surface rather than depth, and obvious rather than hidden signification — is so opposed to the mechanisms of allegory. And yet the photograph scene is hardly the only instance in which the film’s mode of representation diverges from allegory. A few minutes later, another character flips through a magazine and finds an advertisement featuring a woman’s torso in lingerie. She holds it up to her own body, and her head fits exactly on top of it. As the image, which leads off this article, shows, the perfect alignment suggests that the film itself is simply an extension of the photographs it frequently introduces, a concept reinforced by the image at right. But all the senses in which the film aligns with the photographs — its attention to surface appearance rather than hidden meaning, its disregard for abstract signification, its fixation on specificity — undermine the allegory it constructs.
The compromised allegory is hardly rare in modernist film, or twentieth-century literature: the difficulty of making truth claims in our period frequently manifests itself in the creation of allegorical frameworks that turn out to be inconsistent, indeterminate, or incomplete. And yet Les Carabiniers is striking in that many of its most compelling scenes, like the photograph sequence, fall outside the allegorical structure. Walter Benjamin writes of Kafka that “he sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, its haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But it is their misery and their beauty that they had to become more than parables” (144). In the photograph sequence in Les Carabiniers, as in so many other moments when the film lets go of the allegorical structure, there is little misery: rather, freed from the burden of having to convey anything, the film offers the alternative of a world where there is no truth but beauty, where everything important is visible on the surface. Like Borges, from whom he takes his film’s epigraph, Godard delights in denaturing the allegory to focus on the elements of art it cannot contain.
By contrast, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, which appeared the same year as Les Carabiniers, treats the insufficiency of the allegory as a cause for mourning. Like Les Carabiniers, The Silence deploys many of the trappings of allegory — an anonymous town, typological characters, a timeless plot, and a self-consciously presentational style — while foregrounding the absence of any didactic content. As in Les Carabiniers, the allegory in The Silence turns out to be indecipherable. But where Godard turns away from the illegible allegory to celebrate precisely those filmic elements that fall outside it, Bergman forces his audience to share in characters’ frustration as they try — and fail — to read the significance of their own situation. If Godard reveals what Benjamin calls “the beauty” of recognizing that twentieth-century art has to become more than a parable, Bergman offers a vision of “the misery”: the desperate, impossible effort to find some kind of truth in a text that offers only transmissibility.
Les Carabiniers and the Transformation of the Fable
The letters Ulysses and Michel-Ange write home to their family offer a remarkably bleak portrayal of life on the front. “Always the same words,” reads one. “Bodies, decay, rot, death, etc.” The messages unfold against a black background, in white handwriting whose loopy, juvenile style is ill-suited to the graphic events it describes. After each appearance of the letters, Godard inserts a few seconds of what looks like stock war footage: planes dropping bombs, tanks rolling across barren fields, cities left in ruins. The overall effect is horrifying. War, it seems, is serious business, not at all the lucrative adventure the army recruiters promised. But if this is the film’s message, no one seems to have told its characters. Through each successive war scene, Ulysses and Michel-Ange maintain their carefree attitude. And with good reason: the horrors of war remain entirely separate from the two male protagonists’ scenes, diegetically as well as formally. The stock war footage, with its overdubbed sound, perfect camera placement, and stylized cuts, does not conform to the cinéma vérité style of Les Carabiniers; its noticeably grainy texture also sets it apart and suggests older film. Moreover, the battles in which Ulysses and Michel-Ange take part never have the intensity of the war footage. When we see the two protagonists fighting, war seems not to be a serious affair at all. In one scene, Michel-Ange seems to have been assigned to some sort of watch: he sits a short distance from the other soldiers, growing bored and paying little attention to his surroundings. For awhile, he amuses himself by holding his machine gun aloft and pretending to shoot, but it is obvious that the gun is upside down. After firing a few pretend rounds, he begins to flip through a pamphlet when he suddenly hears a noise. He takes hold of the gun, for real this time, but it is stillupside down. If Michel-Ange notices, he doesn’t care: for him, there is no distinction between the imaginary war game he was just playing and the real war in which he now prepares to engage.
Nearby, two people approach who seem to be taking their roles in the war rather more seriously. They surround Michel-Ange without his even noticing them, but then, improbably, he wrestles away both their guns, and his unit rushes to his side to capture the two enemy fighters. One of them, a young woman, identifies herself as a member of the “Fourth Territorial Action Group.” When a royal soldier demands to know why she is fighting against them, she confidently recites, “Lenin said, bourgeois capitalism and its reactionaries are merely evil insects and must be considered as such by the international proletariat.” As she finishes speaking, she shakes her finger, and her right hand appears outsize as it intrudes into the close-up of her face: even the didactic gesture is visually out of place. Meanwhile, the speech itself, with its introduction of actual Marxist doctrine, seems out of tune with the film. Wasn’t it just a moment ago that Michel-Ange was shooting his upside-down gun at a pretend enemy, and Ulysses was cracking jokes with a woman whose car he commandeered at a roadblock? When one of the soldiers responds to the revolutionary woman’s speech by declaring that “she’s a pain. Shoot her,” we are inclined to agree at least with the first sentiment, if not with the second.
But the revolutionary has one more thing to say before she dies. “Brothers!” she calls out, repeatedly, until the soldiers remove the white cloth they’ve placed over her face in preparation to execute her. “I’d like to recite a wonderful fable by Mayakovsky,” she says, and begins:
This can’t be Death. Why would she hang about here? Aren’t you ashamed to believe in a fable? Someone has a party, creates a carnival, invents this killing as he blinks his eyes. She is charming, but like the cannons. The gas mask is but a simple toy. See? In her careful course, she measures the heavens. Has death slipped on the floor of the sky? Don’t say a wound’s blood is awful. Simply, to honor heroes, we gave them carnations. True, the mind won’t and can’t understand it. If cannons’ necks aren’t for kissing, why do the trenches’ arms embrace them? No one has been killed. Too weary, all have lain down, from the Seine to the Rhein, as gangrene flowers among the slain. Who says “slain?” No! No. All are going to rise again, and come smiling home and tell their wives, “What a joke it was! What a phenomenon!” They’ll say, “There were no shells or mines. It was all a wonderful fable for your birthday!”1
As she speaks the final sentence, the head of the unit raises his gun as a signal to the soldiers to prepare to shoot. In French, the woman’s last words are “a wonderful fable,” a phrase that has undergone a complicated transformation during the course of her speech. When she begins speaking, “a wonderful fable by Mayakovsky” sounds like it will be an allegory, a didactic tool that will convey a message to the soldiers. By her final sentence, however, “a wonderful fable” has become a figure for deception. The war is not real, but simply “a wonderful fable” that someone at a party has made up for his wife’s birthday. In the context of the young woman’s revolutionary affiliations, the story suggests that war is nothing but a mystification, a way for the bored bourgeoisie, who have nothing to do but go to birthday parties, to entertain themselves at the expense of the proletariat. But this definition of “a wonderful fable” is exactly opposite to the first one. Where “a wonderful fable by Mayakovsky” previously implied an allegorical framework that allowed access to truth, now “a wonderful fable” denotes a deceptive falsehood.
When the girl first declares, “I’d like to recite a wonderful fable by Mayakovsky,” the phrase “a wonderful fable” seems to describe the genre of her story. The last line she speaks, however, suggests that “a wonderful fable” might just be a quotation that Mayakovsky has employed to serve as the title of his text: seen this way, the girl’s first line would be, “I’d like to recite ‘A Wonderful Fable’ by Mayakovsky.” Mayakovsky’s text is now completely self-contained: its title and ending point back at each other. The transformation flattens the allegorical structure suggested by the woman’s first line: instead of an allegory that points to some meaning beyond itself, she offers us a text that only leads back to itself. The word “fable” never appears in Les Carabiniers outside the woman’s speech. Nonetheless, the film enacts the same transformation of the significance of the fable: where at its outset Les Carabiniers sets up the structure of the fable-as-allegory, as the film continues it becomes clear that the war is actually an instance of the fable-as-delusion. The potential of deciphering allegorical truth that the film initially offers is shattered by its final insistence that nothing is true, that what seems to be real is only an illusion.
A number of indicators at the beginning of Les Carabiniers mark its plot as an allegorical fable. The recruiters arrive at the peasants’ shack in the name of a ruler everyone refers to only as “the King,” an anonymity that suggests the story could be about any leader. The King’s emblems consist of a cross and the letter “R,” for roi: they do not denote any particular country, and no one ever mentions the name of one. The peasants’ epic names — Ulysses, Michel-Ange, Cleopatre, and Venus — are not nationally or linguistically specific; instead, the names identify their situation with a universal condition, or at least one that is universal in the West. And just as the names distinguish the peasants from real, particular people, the peasants’ behavior prevents viewers from treating them as real subjects. They rarely display any affect, and when they do, it is never sustained: they seem more like amateur actors showcasing their ability to portray different moods than real people experiencing actual emotions. Their pacing is rarely naturalistic either. Rather than imitating an actual conversation in which people listen to others, think, and respond, the peasants either rush to begin speaking immediately as someone else finishes, or leave long, awkward pauses.
The presentational aesthetic and the absence of interiority both locate the film squarely in the allegorical realm. As a presentation of moral truth rather than a representation of reality, allegory seems to account for the characters’ obviously unconvincing performances. And by using characters to represent concepts beyond themselves, allegory would fill the characters’ lack of psychological depth with interpretive depth. The opening scenes of the film preclude other common methods of engagement: identification with the characters is impossible due to their lack of interiority, and investment in the outcome of the plot is unlikely, since there is little suspense. These scenes suggest that the film could only be legible as a didactic fable. Yet as Les Carabiniers continues, it becomes clear that the allegorical framework is not sufficient to the interpretation of the film. If Les Carabiniers is a fable, it lacks any discernible moral: Ulysses and Michel-Ange survive the war basically unchanged, until the moment in the film’s last scene when an army officer unexpectedly shoots them. None of the film’s events afford an allegorical reading. Moreover, as Les Carabiniers progresses, the mechanism of allegory becomes less and less functional at explaining therelationship between the film and the real world.
Allegory requires separation between the allegorical text and reality, so that the significance of the text to the real world only emerges after a process of decoding. In allegory, reality is something reached by penetrating through the text, which only works if reality is absent from the text itself. The nameless King and the non-specific kingdom suggest exactly this dynamic: only through the viewer’s decoding will their relation to reality emerge. But as the film continues, the specifics of the real world unexpectedly begin to appear, as in the photograph sequence. The photographic representation of reality is exactly the opposite of an allegorical representation: photographs are a fiction that replicates reality in its surface appearances, whereas allegory places reality beyond its surface. We may initially assume that the characters are simply being foolish when they seem to think the photographs are real objects, like when they suggest giving the photo of the ruined Parthenon to a particular friend because “he’s a repairman. He’ll know how to fix it.” But the peasants themselves know the difference: “Okay, but when do we get the real things?” Cleopatre demands. It is the film — not the characters — that treats the photographs as equivalent to the things they represent. At the same moment that the allegorical structure loses its integrity, Les Carabiniers begins to conflate reality and illusion. This is more than a coincidence: with the breakdown of the allegory, the allegorical distance has also vanished, so that nothing separates the seemingly real world from the obviously fictional text. Our reality, the film’s fictional reality, and the photographic illusion all collapse into a single, flat surface.
The second half of the film features a number of instances where reality and illusion become indistinguishable, and while we might be tempted to read these only as depictions of the peasants’ naïve understanding of the world, they are more than that. It is true that Michel-Ange sees a movie for the first time in Santa Cruz and covers his eyes in fear that the train on the screen will run him over; later, he attempts to jump into a scene of a beautiful woman bathing. But more often, it is the viewer and not the characters who take illusion for reality. The scene in which Ulysses walks into a Maserati dealership, confident that his military service will buy him a car, seems to promise to disabuse him of his delusions. It appears that his idealization of war will finally come to an end in a jarring encounter with reality, and the salesman does, indeed, tell Ulysses that it’s impossible to buy a Maserati with a letter from the King. But something in his tone undermines the reality he seems to represent. When Ulysses shows him the letter, he does not seem confused, or declare that it is ridiculous; instead, he simply explains that “that won’t do. You need money.” When Ulysses naïvely responds by asking, “A lot?” the salesman answers in kind: “Yes, a lot.” Even though the salesman does not give Ulysses what he wants, he still seems to act according to Ulysses’ expectations, rather than behaving as a reasonable person in the real world. It is not Ulysses who is foolish in failing to understand the difference between the illusion of the recruiters’ promises and the reality of the car dealership; rather, we have made a mistake in assuming a neat distinction between illusion and reality, which the second half of the film refuses to draw.
“Aren’t you ashamed to believe in a fable?” the revolutionary young woman asks. Her question most obviously addresses the soldiers; in this case, the fable in which they should be ashamed to believe is the second kind of fable, the fake war that turns out to be “a wonderful fable for your birthday!” And yet the question appears long before the revelation of this second meaning of “fable”; in fact, it comes right after her declaration that she wants to recite “a wonderful fable by Mayakovsky.” By the film’s end it is clear that her question cannot just apply to the soldiers who believe in the fable of war; it also addresses the viewer who believes in the fable of the film, the allegory with some hidden truth. “I’ll tell you a secret,” one of the carabiniers says to Ulysses and Michel-Ange in the final scene of the film. The viewer who excitedly leans forward to hear what the secret is will be disappointed: the soldier calmly goes to his jeep, takes out a rifle, and shoots Ulysses and Michel-Ange dead. There is no secret, and to expect the film reveal one is to believe, shamefully, in a fable.
The incomprehensible language of The Silence
“What does this mean?” asks a young boy, pointing to a sign, in the first line of Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. “I don’t know,” an older woman answers. “Nitsel Statijon Palik,” the boy enunciates, and sits down: the words, though legible, have no significance for him. In its opening moments, the film aligns the problem of decoding its strange, invented foreign language with a question it forces characters and viewers to pose, even as it refuses to answer it: “What does this mean?” Although Bergman’s aesthetic is very different from Godard’s, The Silence shares with Les Carabiniers the sense of a self-conscious presentation: throughout the film, Bergman foregrounds the extent to which scenes are the result of careful, deliberate framing, whether his own or the characters’. Bergman’s emphasis on the frame throws into question the assumption that The Silence is a representation of reality; moreover, by highlighting the project of framing, Bergman forces us to pay particular attention to whatever is inside the frame. Set apart, like the words on the sign, the content of Bergman’s carefully framed presentations seems like it must mean something. The implication becomes even more convincing in light of Bergman’s engagement with the allegorical mode in previous films. Early in The Seventh Seal (1957), a medieval knight and his squire see a man sitting on a rock and stop to ask him the way. The squire dismounts from his horse, taps on the man’s shoulder, and asks, “Where is the inn?” When the man does not answer, the squire lifts the man’s head to look him in the eyes, but finds only hollow sockets: the man is dead. The squire says nothing and gets back on his horse. “Was he a mute?” the knight asks. “No, milord,” answers the squire. “As a matter of fact, he was quite eloquent . . . Most eloquent. Though what he had to say was very depressing.” Bergman clearly marks the dead body as a sign: the dramatic staging of the squire’s discovery and the haunting music that accompanies the first shot of the head both frame the scene as a moment of meaningful presentation. And the squire’s conversation with the knight shows that the significance of the presentation is easily decipherable. The body speaks to the ever-present reality of death.
One subplot of The Seventh Seal concerns a troupe of actors who travel around the region performing morality plays, and as the encounter with the body demonstrates, the film itself deploys the most basic technology of the morality play: the self-conscious presentation of interpretable signifiers. Like The Seventh Seal, The Silence both depicts characters staging didactic presentations and stages them itself. In a striking example of the former tendency, one character, Anna, cinematically frames her own erotic encounter with a stranger to present it to her sister Ester. Having heard that Anna is with a man in another room of the hotel where the sisters are staying, Ester stands outside the room’s door and calls softly, “Are you in there? . . . I need to talk to you.” After a few moments, Anna observes that “she’s still out there. She’s crying.” Anna turns off the light, goes to the door, and opens it a crack; after that, she presumably runs back to the other side of the room, because when Ester walks in a moment later she does not see Anna. She walks along the wall, guiding herself with her fingers, and whispers, “Anna? Where are you?” Finally, she sees two shapes moving in the dark. Just as Ester walks up to them, Anna turns on the light to reveal herself and the man kissing passionately.
Anna’s presentation of her erotic encounter for Ester echoes an earlier moment in the film, when Anna herself watches a couple have sex in a theater. In that scene, the spotlights that were pointed at a burlesque show onstage fall onto the couple, so that their actions are lit, almost cinematically, for Anna to view. When Anna talks to Ester a few hours later, she inserts herself into the encounter, telling Ester that she herself “had intercourse on the floor” of the theater and offering the story as an explanation for why the back of her dress is dirty. Eventually, though, her effort to become part of the story fails: she admits, “It so happens I was lying.” Although she later had sex with a stranger she met at a bar, it was in a church; in the theater, she only “sat and watched that couple make love.” That evening, when Ester comes to the door and asks to talk to Anna, the story is repeated one more time. In this iteration, Anna succeeds in inserting herself into the event: this time, the light illuminates Anna’s sexual encounter with the man for Ester to view. But there is a crucial difference between the first scene of observation and the second. In the first case, the couple was not trying to be seen. The spotlight just happened to fall on them, so that the cinematic presentation of their intercourse was only accidental — at least in a diegetic sense. In the second case, Anna deliberately stages the scene. She rushes to put herself and the man in the proper place and deliberately turns on the lamp at the perfect moment to reveal the encounter to Ester.
Anna’s careful presentation of the scene seems to respond to Ester’s insistence that “I have to talk to you”: in place of talking, she is staging a kind of sexualized morality play that will communicate without language. Yet despite all the indicators of a didactic intention in Anna’s behavior, it is not clear what she might be trying to teach Ester. After a long interval of silence, Ester echoes our own question about what it all means: “What have I done to deserve this?” she wonders. “Nothing in particular,” Anna replies. After a moment, though, she offers a lengthy but completely unsatisfying explanation: “It’s just that you always harp on your principles and drone on about how important everything is. But it’s all just hot air. You know why? I’ll tell you. Everything centers around your ego. You can’t live without feeling superior. That’s the truth. Everything has to be desperately important and meaningful and goodness knows what else.” After a few lines of dialogue between the sisters, Anna continues, “With all your education, and all the fancy books you’ve translated, can you answer me one thing? When Father died, you said, ‘I don’t want to go on living.’ So why are you still around?”
Anna’s final remark demonstrates an almost comic degree of literalism. Despite her professed understanding of Ester’s motivations, she refuses to exercise even the most basic interpretive dexterity in reading Ester’s remark about their father’s death. Of course, on a psychological level the bizarre interpretation is only one more opportunity for Anna to express scorn for Ester and her beliefs. But Anna’s stubborn devotion to her own obvious misreading throws into doubt her earlier interpretive work, where she read her own scene as a response to Ester’s egoism. It undermines the authority of an interpretation that never really made sense anyway: how does Anna’s erotic display demonstrate that Ester’s principles are false? In fact, Anna seems to be committing the sin she attributes to Ester of believing that “everything has to be desperately important and meaningful and goodness knows what else.” In both her preparation before the scene and her discussion of it afterwards, Anna herself assigns an excess of interpretive meaning to a display that ultimately refutes interpretation.
The Silence: image 2
The Silence: image 3
The Silence: image 4
The Silence: image 5
The Silence: image 6
If the episode above finds Anna playing the role of a film director — placing her actors, adjusting the light — elsewhere Bergman’s style replicates Anna’s self-conscious, presentational staging. Throughout The Silence, Bergman draws attention to the careful, intentional quality of his framing. Diegetic frames, including arches, windows, mirrors and door frames, are prominent in the film, as images 2-6 demonstrate. In images 2, 3, and 4, Bergman centers the diegetic frame within the shot, so that the obviously non-accidental placement of the diegetic frame draws attention to his own precise framing. Additionally, each frame is centered before something begins to happen inside it: the frame precedes the event. The spatial and temporal positioning of the frame forces us to recognize that what we are watching is not a realistic representation of events: rather, each scene is being deliberately presented. In the scene where image 5 appears, Bergman alludes to the artificiality of his camera’s perspective by framing Ester’s first conversation with the waiter in a mirror. And in image 6, Bergman replicates the well-known structure of printed film stock with his depiction of the train windows: the evenly-spaced images that flash past Anna’s son, Johan, mimic individual still photographs on a strip of film. The window frames within the film replicate the actual frame around each image that composes The Silence. By emphasizing the deliberateness of his framing, Bergman implies that we should be paying careful attention to what is within the frame, just as Johan does when he puts his hand against the moving image. Yet the tanks Johan sees are only one example of an object with seeming allegorical significance that never yields to interpretation, no matter how hard he or the viewer presses.
The film frequently associates such enigmatic signifiers with Johan: of the five images, four — all except the conversation between Ester and the waiter in the mirror — could be considered to reflect Johan’s point of view. The frames suggest Johan’s instinctive understanding that he is seeing something important, even if he cannot define exactly why it is important. Yet it would be a mistake to explain away the film’s unintelligibility by saying that it simply represents a childish perspective. If Johan doesn’t understand the images Bergman so carefully presents, neither do we, in most cases. We can point to the framing of image 2, in which Johan sees Anna undress in a doorframe, as presenting Johan’s mother to him as a sexual object, a dynamic that we can identify while he cannot. But the vast majority of the images the film presents to Johan do not lend themselves to any clear interpretation. In image 3, for instance, Bergman sets up the arches of a corridor as a frame for a workman carrying a ladder: if Johan does not understand the ostensible significance of this man, whom he shoots with his toy gun, neither do we. Earlier in the film, the train windows frame a sequence of the sun moving quickly across mountains, a surreal vision that we cannot explain any better than Johan, who blinks as if in an effort to correct the image. And the enigmatic signifier that prompts Johan’s opening question of “What does this mean?” is a sign that is literally indecipherable, since it is written in an invented foreign language. The scenes that characters present to Johan are similarly baffling, to us as well as him: a group of Spanish-speaking dwarves dresses him up as a girl while one dwarf jumps on a bed; the hotel waiter gives him a set of old family photographs, which Johan hides under a carpet. The problem of illegibility goes beyond a representation of childish ignorance: if Johan does not understand the images presented to him, the viewer rarely does either.
Moreover, Johan is not the only character caught up in the struggle to figure out what the film’s puzzling signs mean. Ester is baffled by the scene Anna presents to her and cannot interpret it; elsewhere, she tries and mostly fails to understand the fictional language. Of the three main characters, only Anna ever arrives at something resembling an interpretation of an enigmatic signifier, when she reads the scene she has staged in terms of Ester’s egoism. But Anna’s reading explains nothing: we never really witness Ester’s egoism, so Anna’s criticism is hardly penetrating, and it is unclear what that criticism has to do with the erotic scene anyway. It is telling that only comically literal Anna, clearly the worst reader of the three, ever believes she has successfully deciphered anything.
The viewer who favors Anna’s style of interpretation might argue that all the supposedly enigmatic signifiers in The Silence are actually sexually charged objects, and that they only seem puzzling to Johan and Ester because of those characters’ particular perspectives: the young Johan is still too immature to understand the objects’ erotic connotations, and the intellectual Ester keeps her own sexuality at a distance and refuses to recognize these connotations. The same interpretation would claim that Anna actually does communicate something by staging the erotic scene: she communicates the reality of the eroticism that Ester’s intellectual egoism disavows. In one of the film’s final scenes, Ester offers to the waiter, who cannot understand her, “a confession before extreme unction: semen smells nasty to me.” Could it be that her seemingly fatal illness — the occasion for “extreme unction” — is merely the pretext for a sexual confession? Has Bergman staged the complex, enigmatic presentation of Ester’s death to convey the desperation of a woman who egotistically rejects sexuality?
The construction of sexuality as the key to the film never quite works, a problem Bergman literalizes in the scene of Anna and the strange man meeting in the hotel corridor. Anna triumphantly holds up a large key, unambiguously signaling that she has found a private place for them to have sex. Yet the man struggles to get the door to open: the key does not quite fit. Similarly, a purely sexual interpretation fails to unlock most of the film’s ambiguous images, from the sun racing across the mountains to the man carrying the ladder. And even though Ester sees “extreme unction” as an opportunity to “confess” what she finds repulsive about heterosexual sex, her illness is obviously more than an occasion to reflect on her sexuality. Besides, her confession sheds little light on the film: it seems possible that she was once pregnant but chose not to have a child, but this conclusion can hardly be the secret meaning of all the indecipherable signs.
In addition, the interpretation of the film as primarily about sexuality does nothing to explain its most obviously allegorical and most consistently puzzling trope: the anonymous foreign country with its fictional, unintelligible language. Like the morality play, and like Les Carabiniers, The Silence erases geographic or linguistic specificity. But where a legible allegory, like the morality play, would erase specificity so as to make its significance more comprehensible, Bergman foregrounds the extent to which this abstraction makes everything incomprehensible. Besides offering yet another sign that refutes interpretation, the indecipherable language suggests a metaphor for how the system of signs — the didactic, presentational, non-specific “language” of the allegory — has become unintelligible. Ester is a translator by profession — in one scene she briefly speaks English, French, and German, and in another she reads a book that appears to be written in a Cyrillic alphabet — but she does not know the country’s strange language at all. Accustomed to understanding foreign words, Ester is suddenly confronted upon her arrival in the country with a language she cannot translate; her situation mirrors that of the viewer who, accustomed to deciphering allegories, is suddenly confronted at the beginning of The Silence with a system of signs he cannot interpret. Ester’s hopeless quest to assign some meaning to her mortality coincides with her effort to understand the country’s strange language. Even as she is dying, she dedicates herself to learning common words; her final letter to Johan, which she tells him is “important. You’ll understand,” is not a letter at all but a list of the words she’s learned. Diegetically, her determination to learn the language makes little sense given her grave condition. On a more abstract level, however, Ester’s attempt to grasp even a few words suggests an effort to break through the film’s impenetrability.
“God, please let me die at home,” Ester prays near the beginning of the film. The Silence grants her wish, but only in a negative sense: she does not die, but she does not make it home either. Although the whole plot of The Silence is founded on the pretext of a journey home, it is impossible to imagine the characters ever getting there. Their stay in the country is ostensibly accidental: they only stop so that Ester can recover her energy before they continue traveling. But the puzzling country, with its literally unreadable signs, is so well-suited to their situation that it hardly feels like a coincidence. We cannot picture them ever leaving the country any more than we can picture them ever leaving the film. And so The Silence ends with Anna and Johan on the train, and Ester supposedly “pulling herself together” before continuing on: although the characters seem to be making progress, the final moments suspend them in a state of never arriving. The same suspension applies to the film itself. It initially seems that meaning, like home, is merely located at a great distance from the setting of The Silence. Only as the plot progresses do we realize how hopelessly foreign the film’s world is: although meaning, like home, exists as an imagined destination, it would be impossible ever to reach it.
In a way, it is counterintuitive to label The Silence as the film about meaningless death: unlike Ester, the protagonists of Les Carabiniers actually die at the end of the film, never having learned “the secret” they were promised, and where The Silence concerns itself with the mortality of one woman, the plot of Les Carabiniers is laden with a number of violent, senseless deaths. And yet neither the deaths nor their lack of meaning appear as causes for mourning in Les Carabiniers. The characters so completely lack interiority that we never imagine them wanting to find meaning in their world; it is only we, as viewers, who try to generate significance from the allegorical signs Godard presents. What is more, Godard transforms the failed allegory into a potentially optimistic project. We believe in allegory because we believe in the world as it is, in its potential for meaning. To expose the failure of allegory is also to expose the failure of our reality. It is no surprise that the “wonderful fable” the woman presents transforms from an allegory into an illusion. In her Marxist sense, the fable’s promise of allegorical significance is a mystification in which we should be, as the woman says, “ashamed to believe”; only when the fable expresses the illusory nature of reality can it be in any way instructive.
Ironically, Les Carabiniers preserves a didactic role for the fable: the fable no longer exists to give meaning to reality, but rather to expose the meaninglessness of what we think is real. And so the inability of allegory to express truth is not tragic, nor is it really an inability. Just as successful allegories expressed the truth of other periods, the failed allegory expresses the lack of meaning that constitutes the primary truth of our time. In The Silence, on the other hand, the failure of the allegory is simply a failure. There is no framework in which the impossibility of meaning would constitute meaning in itself, no revolutionary woman quoting Lenin, no Marxist fable that reveals reality to be an illusion. Unlike Godard, Bergman never implies that the fable is only a mystification, so allegorical truth persists as the desirable yet unachievable object of The Silence. And in contrast to Les Carabiniers, where we can easily give up the quest for allegorical meaning since it is ours alone, in The Silence we find ourselves hopelessly involved with characters, like Ester, who seem determined to find significance in their circumstances. Can we really tell her, as we would tell Ulysses and Michel-Ange, that there is no secret, that it’s all a mystification? By never requiring us to project any interiority onto its characters, Les Carabiniers grants us a privileged position from which to watch the failure of the allegory unfold: we can see, from this perspective, that the fable is really just a figure for delusion. In The Silence, we are too invested in the world to say there is no truth in it.
The contrast between the two films points to the essential difficulty of demystification. The only way we can acknowledge that reality is an illusion is to view the world from the disembodied, impersonal perspective Les Carabiniers offers us; only in the most abstract sense can we reject the structures that promise meaning, allegory among them, as mystifications. As soon as we begin to exist as subjects in a world, even through imaginative identification, we become attached to the search for significance. “What does this mean?” The Silence asks in its opening line. Although we know we will never be able to give an answer, we, like Ester and Johan, and like Bergman, cannot imagine giving up on the question.
Almereyda, Michael, ed. Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky. New York: Farrar, 2008.
Benjamin, Walter. “Some Reflections on Kafka.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 2007. 141-5.
Les Carabiniers. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Wellspring, 1963. DVD.
The Seventh Seal. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Criterion, 1957. DVD.
The Silence. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Criterion, 1963. DVD.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, 1973.
- In Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky, Micheal Almereyda notes that he cannot locate this fable in any of the poet’s works and suggests that Godard may have written it himself. See Almereyda 253. [↩]