In 2011 I wrote a program note for the Melbourne International Film Festival, about this Slovenian film, Silent Sonata. The URL is missing, now, but I’ve found my brief reflection. I still remember this joyful film. Wonderful to listen to.
After a brief visual prologue featuring a series of landscape tableaux, Silent Sonata (Janez Burger) presents us with a line from Walt Whitman’s poem, Song of Myself. “I know I have the best of time and space. And was never measured and never will be measured,” we read on the screen. This suggests the forthcoming psychological direction of the film: that there is an absolute freedom in existence, that the despair of a barren reality is leavened by a belief in the marvellous, and that we, as clichéd as this may sound, can live life as we love it.. The following line of Whitman’s poem, “I tramp a perpetual journey (come listen all!)” while not included in the film, must have been on writer-director Burger’s mind. Life is a journey, and in this film we are invited to listen.
As the opening credits roll, simple white text on a black background, the film opens its intense sound landscape onto a world of auditory envelopment. As the soundtrack continues over the black screen, we are subjected to sonic violence: weapons relentlessly penetrate the soundtrack. Hyper-aware of personal, environmental, and wartime sounds, and only slowly reintroduced to the image, we are taken to a place where sound and silence are both imperative.
Free of dialogue, Silent Sonata wastes absolutely no sound, and sometimes this emphasis is overwhelming. In the film’s beginning there is a slow, painful zoom on a dying man, and the intensity of the sound here is driven to excess. Of course, this is the point, and only makes us more aware of the suffering present in this sparse, lonely, war torn place. Consequently, the wonder of the bizarre circus interludes are comforting, strange but magical.
Silent Sonata has the same joyous, frenetic surrealism which infused Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995). In the face of war, the uplifting visual and sonic splendour resonates with the recent history of the Balkan region. The moments of magic and circus antics – juxtaposed with the harsh, barren conditions of rural Slovenia – are at first oddly comforting. As the moments become more pronounced, however, it becomes apparent that Silent Sonata is concerned with the body in the face of war.
In one such scene, a piano sonata overwhelms the soundtrack while a gymnast performs her act, her hoop suspended in the air as she is watched, in awestruck desperation, by a widower. This bizarre appearance of a circus troupe at the home of a man and his children gives the survivors of war hope. It is a hope in the possibilities of life, and the potential of human strength, physical or otherwise. How do the human body and mind cope in the face of war, against an unknown fear of loss and destruction? When we are at a loss for words, what becomes important? Silent Sonata definitely took a while to warm to me, but once it did, I was utterly engulfed in the film. There are some truly stunning scenes: a circus performer dances with a tank; children ride bicycles on a beach, with the waves and a harp as aural accompaniment; an interior deluge destroys a typewriter. By inviting the spectator to explore the auditory realm he has created, Burger has given poetic expression to the spirit of humankind.