Two sisters stop at a hotel in an unidentified European country on the brink of war or insurrection. The older, more cultured sister, Ester (Ingrid Thulin), who translates literature, is terminally ill, and her fear of death clouds her relationship with her younger, beautiful sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), who's depicted as the fleshly side of the spirit/flesh dichotomy. The younger sister neglects her son Johan (Jörgen Lindström) (a boy of 12 or so), who wanders the seemingly half-empty hotel.
In a scene, Johan stares out of the window as a lone tank rolls down the street at night; in Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag considers it an all-too-obvious phallic symbol. According to critic Leo Braudy, Bergman intended the film as "a rendering of hell on earth — my hell."
According to Jerry Vermilye, The Silence "...achieved a measure of sensationalistic attention by dint of its scenes of sensuality, mild though they were. It raised a great deal of controversy in Sweden, and its notoriety continued to raise hackles elsewhere in Europe. All of which attracted the attention of filmgoers; in Britain and the United States it became a considerable hit, perhaps for reasons of prurience rather than art.
Due to its reputation for "pornographic sequences" the film became a financial success.