On July 8, 1986, two pedophiles in a small German town stalk a teenage girl riding her bike down a country road. One of them (Ulrich Thomsen) rapes the girl, then impulsively kills her when she lashes out at him; the other (Wotan Wilke Möhring), a more nebbishy type, watches in horror from a distance. They dispose of the body and get away clean. The case is never solved.
More than two decades later, another teenage girl disappears, on the same date and in the same spot, her bicycle found just a few feet from the previous victim’s grave marker. Someone’s trying to send a message, it seems. The Silence takes its time in revealing who’s responsible for this second crime, and why it’s happened again, yet writer-director Baran bo Odar (adapting a novel by Jan Costin Wagner) isn’t as interested in solving a mystery as he is in examining the community’s response to this re-opening of an old wound. From the detective who failed to solve the ’86 murder (Burghart Klaussner) to the victim’s still-grieving mother (Katrin Sass), people who thought they’d put the tragedy well behind them are drawn back into emotional states they’d long forgotten. That goes double for Möhring, now a respectable husband and father living in another city, who heads back to confront his ugly legacy and his old friend.
From moment to moment, The Silence can feel a bit pokey, as it divides its attention among a host of characters and never builds up much urgency about the fate of the second victim, whose body hasn’t been found. The film’s provocative nature only becomes fully apparent with the final scene—not due to some unexpected twist (by that point, all has been revealed), but via a sudden, head-spinning shift in perspective. What had seemed like a lackluster ensemble piece turns out to be an exercise in empathy, inviting viewers to recognize the pain of an otherwise reprehensible character by enfolding him into a huge tapestry of mutual anguish. That tactic might genuinely piss some people off were it not accomplished so quietly and subtly, and while the movie’s plodding journey to this destination isn’t ideal, there’s a sense in which it almost needs to be that TV-drama-ish, in order to lower the viewer’s defenses. (There’s no rationalization for Thomsen and Möhring looking the same age in scenes set 23 years apart, however. Shaggy wigs don’t cut it.) Even for the irredeemable, The Silence audaciously suggests, loneliness is loneliness.