Film noir has taken root in the dank, angsty soul of Northern Europe, though you wouldn’t know it from “The Silence,” an adaptation of Jan Costin Wagner’s novel by Swiss-born writer-director Baran bo Odar. In this, his first feature, Odar dispels the air of doom and despair found in films ranging from Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2007) to Bruno Dumont’s “Humanite.” “The Silence” is a victim of over-plotting, clunky narrative, gratuitous stylization, and too many points of view. When any character quirk or story turn shows promise, depend on some ill-considered directorial decision to put a stop to it.
This despite a promising start. The film opens with an enigmatic montage involving a tacky apartment, two guys on a sofa, a super-8 image of a girl with glasses, and a rattling movie projector. The two men are Peer (Ulrich Thomsen) and Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring), and a flashback shows their first meeting on a park bench overlooking a playground. With halting inevitability they sniff out each other’s proclivities and fall, almost unconsciously, into a lethal pas de deux. They go for a ride, spot a young girl on her bike, and follow her down a dirt road into a wheat field. Peer, the alpha male, chases the girl down and assaults her, while Timo watches numbly, both attracted and repulsed. He is a voyeur with twisted tastes; he watches but doesn’t act. Though despicable, he is pitiable, too, and wisely Odar settles — for a while — on Timo for the film’s point of view.
The girl’s body is found weeks later but the culprits are never caught. Now middle-aged, Timo has changed towns and identities; he’s respectable, with a good job, a wife, and two kids of his own. But then a news report shatters his complacency: A girl has vanished at the same place and on the same date as the crime he abetted 23 years earlier.
Meanwhile, every other character in the movie has tuned into the same broadcast. Is there no other TV station in Germany? The viewers include Elena (Katrin Sass), the mother of the first victim; Ruth (Karoline Eichhorn) and Karl (Roeland Wiesnekker), the yet unsuspecting parents of the new victim; Krischan (Burghart Klaussner), the now retired detective who still clings to the unsolved case long after his obsession with it has ruined his marriage; Grimmer (Oliver Stokowski), the infuriatingly stupid head of the police investigation, and Jann (Sebastian Blomberg), the oddball of the department, the kind of socially awkward savant whose brilliant insights are invariably rejected.
Jann seems the character worth keeping track of, especially when he’s seen sprawled on his kitchen floor racked with hallucinations and wearing a dress. Nothing to worry about, though. It’s just his way of grieving for his wife, who died a few months before.
Everyone is grieving in this movie, or is lonely or lost. They are mistreated by fate, but also by the director, who reduces them all to ciphers. Despite all the complications and characters, the requisite aerial swoops of moody landscapes, and the spooky noises surging on the soundtrack when something terrible seems about to happen (but doesn’t), Odar’s “Silence” remains unfilled.