What is the effect of a brutal murder on a community? It’s a tragedy for the victim and close relatives, surely. But what about the authorities who investigate? The accomplice? The killer? The region? Director Baran bo Odar’s crisply devastating debut feature finds the reverberations of violence still resonating a generation after the blood has dried. The unorthodox German thriller “The Silence” is framed as a multi-character police procedural, but like “Mystic River” and “Zodiac,” its inquiries probe deeper and darker.
The film, which begins in 1986, wastes no time setting an ominous tone. There’s an opening montage of worrisome images. A slow push-in on an anonymous apartment window. An 8mm projector slapping at the end of its reel. An overhead helicopter shot of a red Audi driving down a green country lane. It’s an overture of anxiety that pays off quickly. An 11-year-old named Pia is attacked beside a wheat field. The killer is Peer (Ulrich Thomsen), an ostensibly amiable handyman. Watching the crime from the red car’s passenger seat, revolted but unable to act, is Peer’s fellow pedophile and only friend, Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring). Timo abruptly cuts all ties to the older man, moving away and constructing a new identity. The killing goes unsolved. Then, 23 years later to the day, a nearly identical murder claims a young girl at the same spot.
The timing draws the attention of Krischan (Burghart Klaussner), a newly retired policeman who lost his marriage over his obsession with the old case. The officious new department head doesn’t want the decades-old murder back on the books. Ignoring his objections, Krischan unofficially partners with the new investigator, David (Sebastian Blomberg), a gaunt, hypertense scarecrow of a man anguished by his wife’s losing fight with cancer. As the men sift through new evidence, old files and crime-scene dioramas, their own issues of personal loss color every conversation and official interview. The haggard David asks Pia’s mother when the pain of a loved one’s death finally begins to fade. She replies, “Never.”
The story questions the themes and character conventions of crime thrillers, regarding the pursued, the pursuers and even innocent bystanders with the same cold ambivalence. When well-intentioned parents lock horns with their headstrong daughter, she storms out of the house and into an awful fate, parental concern accidentally triggering tragedy. With remarkable control, clarity and consistency of vision, it creates a world where even hopeful images (a pregnant policewoman, sun-dappled fields, children at play) remind us that peril lurks nearby. Cinematographer Nikolaus Summerer’s eye for stark, square-angled architecture slices the frame like a box cutter. The visuals create an intimidating emotional climate. Behind the community’s prosperous facade, smiling monsters wait.
Run-of-the-mill detective stories exist to ruffle our fears and then soothe them, reassuring us that good guys will eventually stop bad guys. “The Silence” offers no glib reassurances. Its title refers not just to the silence of the grave, but the self-imposed secrecy most of the characters use to cloak their fear and pain. In this film’s universe, even murder can be a way to send a message the killer can’t bear to speak aloud.