Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Bavarian crime chills


David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg) and Matthias Grimmer (Oliver Stokowski) in director Baran bo Odar's The Silence.
Photo: Courtesy of Music Box Films.
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The Silence, a slow-moving but harrowing emotional thriller from Germany (opening Friday at Landmark Theatres), is bookended by two horrific crimes and a sucker punch of a finale. In an understated feature film debut, the Swiss-born director Baran bo Odar sets the crimes, the murder/rapes of two prepubescent girls, in a beautiful slice of the Bavarian countryside. The sweep of golden wheatfields is broken up by a narrow lane, beside which a mom has erected a simple wooden cross with the handwritten inscription "Pia." We observe Pia's mom jogging up to the cross, replacing dead flowers with a fresh bouquet, and looking like her grief has found a lonely but appropriate resting place.

But nothing in a crime-fiction masterpiece is ever quite so simple, and soon Pia's cross has a competing attraction: another girl is missing and presumed slain in these same amber fields of grain. People familiar with both crimes – occurring on the same date, 23 years apart – suspect a copycat sending a macabre message, but to whom, and about what?

Director Odar deploys droll observations of his small-town police force that slip over to the dark side. Just back to work, not recovered from his wife's cancer death, detective David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg) is subject to fits of crying and bursts of rage, and his daily hygiene leaves everything to be desired. Jahn pleads to be assigned to the latest child murder at a retirement party while standing side-by-side at the men's room urinals with his martinet superior, Grimmer (Oliver Stokowski). "I'm happy to be back. I'm fit for service."

No sooner are these words uttered than the party's guest of honor, the drunk-as-a-skunk detective Krischan (Burghart Klaussner) quitting the force after 44 years, stumbles in, ready for a fight with his sworn enemy Grimmer, who stokes the fire by reviving an old bit of office politics.

"I requested to have the new system put on the computers. It's such a mess."

"Good luck. I tried to do the same thing last year."

"They'll listen to me."

"They always listen to assholes."

The two men fall into a party brawl, separated by the hapless Jahn. Along with the pregnant detective Janna (Jule Boewe) and a cute blond policeman who hovers in the background in every station-house scene, The Silence contains the seeds of a dark comedy. The pratfalls and bureaucratic infighting are ample evidence of why these goofball Bavarian cops aren't up to busting the case. A semi-farce breaks out when the bitter Krischan tries to crack the crime that got away from him a generation ago and cost him his marriage. Ulrich Thomsen gives a persuasive performance as a diabolical killer, the Danish-born handyman Peer.

Odar offers breathtaking visual compositions and shrewd insights into how grieving parents are often further damaged by a callous justice system. But his film's main triumph is a close-up of a strong man with the heart of a beast who seduces the younger, weepy Timo (Wotan Wilke Moehring) into a deadly pact of silence. Late in the film, the two partners in crime have a reunion next to a child's swing set. Peer, attempting to seduce Timo back into their long-ago pastime of watching pedophile porn, issues an invitation to his now happily married friend. A young boy standing next to the men innocently pipes up, "I like movies, too." To which Peer ominously replies, "Wait until you're older."


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