What a strange movie this is, “The Silence.” Starting with the title’s stark, pseudo-Tarkovsky-Bergman austerity and the relentless, ominous rumble of its soundtrack, the German crime drama clearly wants to be taken very seriously. The problem is that exaggerated self-seriousness can sometimes stumble into self-parody. That’s not meant as a complete dismissal. From start to last, “The Silence” is absorbing. Weirdly, though, it’s almost never convincing, emotionally or narratively. When you think back on it, the whole thing falls apart.
It begins in July 1986, when an 11-year-old girl, bicycling along a lane in a Bavarian wheat field, is raped and murdered. The culprit is right in front of us: Peer (Ulrich Thomsen, of the terrific “The Celebration”), the genial superintendent of an apartment block where kids frolic in slow motion. (I’ll come back to that.) He’s driving a red car, and there’s a passenger with him: Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring). Both men wear shaggy, unconvincing wigs in these flashbacks, to clue us in to time shifts throughout the rest of the movie.
Peer drives after the girl, assaults and kills her, and Timo watches mutely from the car’s passenger seat. Honestly, I thought maybe this character was meant to be mentally deficient. But no. It’s just a symptom of the story’s undeveloped aspects.
Fast-forward 23 years. It’s July again. The old murder is unsolved, and a second one occurs at the same site and date as the first.
Awkward. At least for the local police. The new investigation embroils a recently retired detective (Burghart Klaußner), a younger cop still shell-shocked from his wife’s recent death (Sebastian Blomberg) and the mother of the girl killed earlier (Katrin Saß). It also explodes an emotional depth charge for Timo, now a successful architect with a wife and two children, who has distanced himself as much as he can from the atrocity he witnessed.
This sounds really interesting, doesn’t it? “The Silence” is based on a German novel. Maybe that page-to-screen transition explains why things don’t quite connect in its running time of two hours.
Director and co-scripter Baran bo Odar shoots the film with an aggressive lens, as if every scene were a hard-sell ad. (Thus those manically frolicking children, in slo-mo, outside the apartment building.) Visually, everything is overdetermined. But as far as the script goes, nobody seemed to notice that it really makes no sense, except in an “artistic” way. Which means that two of the actors (the grieving cop, the mute witness) spend most of the movie being either (a) insanely antic or (b) annoyingly passive. They aren’t people, they’re chess pieces. The two actors are left swinging in the wind, trying their best to sell characters that don’t make sense.
This is a movie to watch if you’re interested in seeing how filmmakers can take the familiar building blocks of a standard policier, throw them all together and still get it slightly wrong. It ends with a sad, sophisticated, sour irony. Normally I would appreciate that. But this film doesn’t earn it. What drives me crazy is that “The Silence” is so well made that I would probably watch it again — just hoping that this time, things might make a little more sense.
“The Silence.” With Ulrich Thomsen, Wotan Wilke Möhring. Directed by Baran bo Odar. In German with subtitles. 119 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.