This story has been updated. See note below.
"The Silence" is an exemplary German-language thriller, a complex and disturbing examination of guilt, violence and psychological torment that chills us to the core not once but two times over.
Impeccably made with complete control of the medium by Swiss-born writer-director Baran bo Odar in a seriously impressive feature debut, "The Silence" is initially disturbing because the crime it focuses on is sexual violence: the rape and murder of young girls. Though the criminal moments are few and relatively discreet, they're put on screen with an icy matter-of-factness that makes them even more upsetting.
But as adapted by Odar from a novel by Jan Costin Wagner, this is not a film about a single crime but about what happens when a particularly heinous crime is repeated exactly 23 years later.
More than the acts themselves, "The Silence" unnerves us through its unflinching depiction of the devastating effect this repetition has on the people involved. If you are burned by unspeakable horror, you never fully recover, not even close.
A brief prologue of the events of July 8, 1986, opens the film. On an oppressively hot day, two men sit in an apartment and watch what looks to be a pornographic film. Then Peer (top-flight Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) and Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring) get into Peer's car and follow a young girl named Pia to a deserted wheat field. There Peer rapes and murders her while Timo, simultaneously excited and distraught, simply watches.
The next day, Timo shocks Peer by quickly getting on a bus headed out of town. The scene then shifts immediately to 23 years later, when we're introduced to people for whom the events of that hot July day, though they can never go completely away, have receded somewhat from memory. Until now.
These include Pia's mother, Elena (Katrin Sass, the mother in the great "Goodbye, Lenin"), and Krischan (Burghart Klaussner), the police investigator haunted by his unsuccessful attempt to find Pia's killer and now retiring after 44 years on the force. Then there is David (Sebastian Blomberg), a fellow detective who is shakily returning to police work after several months off trying to cope with the cancer death of his young wife.
We also meet Sinikka, a typically insolent 13-year-old, and her perturbed parents. In short order, Sinikka ends up disappearing on the same day and at the same spot Pia did. It's clear, though the police are loath to admit it at first, that the unspeakable has occurred again. The past, it turns out, is not really gone.
It's not surprising that both Elena and Krischan are upset by the repetition, but it is an indication of the unexpected psychological areas that "The Silence" pursues that we also see what the news does to Timo, now happily married with two children and relocated in another city. He suspects that Peer has struck again, though, like the audience, he does not know enough to be sure. Totally without a plan of action, he is nevertheless compelled to return to the city where the crime took place.
Though it's most obvious with Timo, as "The Silence" unfolds and the police seem no closer to solving the crime, the suffocating burden of the past grows heavier for everyone. What is most unnerving is the way that weight subtly warps everyone's judgment, how each person's psychological needs get in the way of their commendable determination to be of use, with inevitably devastating results.
Though all of "The Silence's" acting is top of the line, a special word must be said about Thomsen, who starred in "The Celebration" and "Brothers" and does an outstanding job as Peer, a monster who doesn't see himself that way. Few things are as hard to play effectively as a seemingly healthy person who is a horror just under the surface, but Thomsen nails it, as does this entire film.
[For the record, 10:17 a.m. March 8: A previous version of this story's photo caption misspelled Möhring's name as Wotang Mike Mohring.]
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: At the Nuart, West Los Angeles
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