Silentium: Ornaments and Crime Scenes

Silentium (Wolfgang Murnberger, 2004) is an Austrian crime film set in Salzburg. Brenner, a former police detective turned private gumshoe, is hired by a high-society widow to investigate her husband’s alleged suicide. In the course of the film, Brenner unearths a network of crime and corruption involving the most important institutions that have constituted the essence of this city for centuries: the Catholic Church and the Opera.
Salzburg’s baroque buildings take its visitors back to the era of 16th-century Italian architectonic expression of the triumph of the Catholic Church. The city also has a long and internationally renowned history of music, which it celebrates through frequent festivals in grand settings. In Silentium, woven into and hidden beneath the ornamental façades of Salzburg’s built environment, as well as its theater performance, are the most heinous crimes. To expose the city as illusion, I consider Janet Ward’s work on urban visual culture in 1920s Germany. In Weimar Surfaces, she identifies the cult of surface: external appearance (in architecture, advertising, film, fashion) without substance. She contends that in this era transparency was sought through the functionalism of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which rejected the visual codes of ornamentation from the past[1].
The film emphasizes throughout that nothing is as it seems: an alleged suicide is calculated murder to keep the silentium (silence) about sexual child abuse by a bishop; a humble priest helps the homeless by day and organizes murder, sex trade, and corruption by night; a brilliant opera singer enjoys raping virgins. Navigating through this existence of Sein (to be) and Schein (to seem) is Brenner, the reluctant hero undeterred by neither high art nor high society.
The pious architectural past is juxtaposed with the criminal present. The recent sexual assault allegations against the bishop of the Christian boarding school, Marianum, permeate today’s crime scenes. On the surface, the Marianum is a place of benevolence and religious worship. Magnificent surroundings honor the presence of God. Underneath, however, are cold and dark basements devoid of any adornment – spaces ideal for committing as well as hiding crimes.

The film’s most monstrous criminals circulate in and enjoy the most splendid surroundings. Golden ornaments, light, and luxury mislead the characters as well as the spectators. The sumptuous festival hall and a 19th-century mansion become the setting for great deceptions by opera stars and criminals alike. Nevertheless, as Brenner perseveres, the facades start to slowly crumble, if only metaphorically. In the end, the city’s urban fabric remains magnificent with its religious and musical essence intact, while the experience makes transparent the true depths of human nature.


[1] Ward, Janet. 2001. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press.