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German Cinema

Das letzte Schweigen (The Silence, Germany 2010)

Victims in the police station: Ruth (Karoline Eichhorn), the mother of the missing girl, watched by Timo's bewildered wife Julia (Claudia Michelsen)

Several reviewers have noted that Das letzte Schweigen bears similarities to the first series of the Danish TV drama The Killing. The formats are different but the central story about the impact of a police investigation of the murder of a young girl is similar and importantly the story is as much about the effects of the investigation on the girl’s parents and the internal wranglings of the police team as it is about the ‘solving’ of a crime.

The Nordic crime connection is not surprising since crime fiction is as popular in Germany as it is elsewhere in Northern Europe. The novel by Jan Costin Wagner, which has been adapted by Swiss writer-director Baran bo Odar, won the German ‘crime prize’ in 2008. Wagner, though writing in his native German, sets his novels in Finland where he lives for much of the time with his Finnish wife. For the adaptation, a Swiss-Finnish perspective is then realised in a South German summer landscape of cornfields, forests and lakes and an oddly sterile collection of new-build houses, municipal flats and nondescript public buildings. This, I’m guessing, replaces the snowy wastes of a Finnish winter.

The film’s German title translates as the ‘final silence’, but I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the novel’s original ‘The Silence’. The title could be a reference to several things but the most likely is to the silence of Timo, who we first see in 1986 when he is witness to, and passive collaborator in, the seemingly random rape and murder of a pre-teen girl, whose bicycle is thrown into a cornfield. Timo immediately splits from the murderer and we see him again 23 years later as a successful architect with a beautiful house, wife and two young children. But then another girl on a bicycle goes missing on the anniversary of the earlier unsolved murder with her bicycle discovered in exactly the same spot. After a police retirement party, the news of the missing girl is taken badly by the retiring officer who failed to crack the earlier case and he sets out to investigate the new one. He’s aided by a younger detective returning to work in a dishevelled state after the death (from cancer) of his wife. The new case stirs the memories of the mother of the girl killed in 1986 and we witness the bewilderment of the parents of the girl who is now missing. Timo is immediately traumatised by the news, having kept his silence for 23 years. Is the missing girl a victim of the same man who was his friend – or is it just a terrible coincidence?

The presentation of this relatively uncomplicated story is stylish with good use of a CinemaScope frame and the dramatic landscape properties of cornfields/forests/lakes seen in occasional overhead aerial shots. I was particularly impressed by the use of music and sound. I found the Sight and Sound review of the film by Matthew Taylor (December 2011) to be rather snotty about the film’s presentation, using words like “portentous”, “over-emphatic, almost pompous” and “lugubriously self-importance”. I think that there is a fear in some parts about genre films that attempt to use the full range of cinematic techniques. Well, it worked for me. I accept that this isn’t a realist film in the sense that the police are a motley crew and nobody who opens the door to them seems to think it would be a good idea to ask for an ID – even though the dishevelled character looks very unlike a responsible copper. But then, invesigators in crime fiction often have behavoural tics and an odd dress sense. The heavily pregnant detective is a nice touch I think and well used in a couple of scenes.

The cornfield brings to mind one of the best crime films of recent years, Memories of Murder (S. Korea 2003). Bong Joon-ho’s film managed to combine the antics (comic, but also brutal) of a similarly bizarre crew of local investigators with a subtle commentary on Korean society and politics in the 1980s. I’m struggling to find the same sense of political purpose in The Silence. However, the film’s ending and certain aspects of the police procedure do leave a lingering sense of ‘disturbance’ –just as the stylistic aspects of the film allow a sense of dread to build throughout the narrative.

The lasting impression is a well-made and highly ‘cinematic’ film which seems to have played mainly on German TV and the joint German-French channel Arte. It wasn’t just the presence of Karoline Eichhorn that made me think of similar Thomas Arslan films (and possibly also Christian Petzold’s Yella). I’m glad that Soda picked it up for UK cinema distribution and I was pleased to see it on a big screen. (This press release seems to indicate that the film received state support in getting distribution in the UK, Denmark and Hungary.)

The trailer gives a good idea about the look and ‘feel’ of the film:

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