Speak No Evil (2022)
Directed by Christian Tafdrup
Screenplay by Christian & Mads Tafdrup
Starring Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev, & Hichem Yacoubi.
Horror / Thriller
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains some spoilers.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Speak No Evil begins like a family vacation film you’d expect to veer into comedy, except for an ominous shot of a vehicle traveling down a dark dirt road and a swelling horror score. The story involves two families—one Danish (Bjorn, Louise, and Agnes), one Dutch (Patrick, Karin, and Abel)—who meet in Tuscany while on vacation; they have dinner and spend a little time together. Months and months later, the Dutch family suddenly invite the Danes to the countryside in the Netherlands. Although neither family knows each other that well, the Danish family accept. What starts off as an interesting trip quickly becomes awkward, then things take a sinister turn.
On its face, Speak No Evil is already a fantastically depraved dramatic thriller that gradually works the audience’s nerves down to the bone until its shocking climax and finale. Beneath the surface story is a contemporary fable—that raises Danish and Dutch history surrounding WWII/the Nazis from the dead—about Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance, as Christian Tafdrup depicts a worst case scenario envisioning what happens when our urge to be polite plays into a dangerous ignorance about evil that, eventually, destroys everything we love. The following reading doesn’t profess to be Tafdrup’s intended reading of the film; Speak No Evil is such an enthralling piece of work that its serious ideas and themes beg to be considered as thoroughly as possible.Writing through the lens of critical film theory can, at times, be a reach, albeit an intriguing reach. In Speak No Evil, there’s historical context that simply can’t be ignored because of the deliberate Danish-Dutch comparisons. In one scene, Bjorn notes the similarities between the two groups of people: “The same humour. The same culture.” It’s far more than that because of Tafdrup’s spotlight on the politeness—or rather, complacency—in the film’s Danish family when they’re confronted with continuous affronts to their decency and/or morals that get more egregious as time wears on.
The film doesn’t have to make mention of Dutch/Danish neutrality during WWII, nor any of the complicated history tangled up in the Second World War and the Nazis in Denmark or the Netherlands. Tafdrup’s film conjures those parallels through a raw depiction of how two parents’ complacent politeness allows evil to invade their lives, an insidious growth that tears their family apart, just like the tumour of Nazism crept its way into supposedly neutral Danish and Dutch societies.
The strong focus in Speak No Evil rests mostly on the Danish family’s politeness in the face of slowly growing impoliteness from the Dutch family. Until things get seriously unnerving halfway through the film, Patrick and Karin don’t actually seem that dangerous, and, to many viewers, Bjorn and Louise appear like they’re just a bit uptight. We start off with tiny moments like Patrick shitting on “The Little Mermaid” while Bjorn laughs it off but simultaneously tries to express the importance of Hans Christen Andersen’s fairy tale to many Danes. Afterwards, Patrick offers Louise a piece of meat despite the fact she’s a pescatarian; worse than that, Louise says nothing about that, she simply refuses, but then Patrick talks her into eating it. Already the complacent and polite nature of the Danes is apparent.
From there, the Danish family’s politeness is tested, as Patrick and Karin go from small, potentially innocuous moments to more serious affronts, like when Patrick comes into the bathroom while Louise is showering, standing there watching her, or when Karin takes Agnes into her bed where she and Patrick sleep naked. Even after the Dutch couple way overstep personal boundaries, and after the Danish couple try to leave once, the Danes allow themselves to be talked into staying out of fear they may be perceived as impolite guests. Then, the horror truly begins.
When we think about the historical context of Danish and Dutch neutrality paralleled in the way Bjorn and Louise ignore all the danger they’ve witnessed in Patrick and Karin’s actions, the progressive build towards Speak No Evil‘s horror reflects the slow march of the Nazis towards the death of democracy. Most of all it feels like a fictional allegory of the post-war confessional prose of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, whose famous quote is found at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The final line of Niemöller’s quote is especially significant regarding the sociopolitical allegory at the heart of this reading of Speak No Evil. In the end, little Agnes is left incapable of speaking for herself or anybody else, a fate decided for her by the complacency and politeness of her the older generation, her parents, not unlike younger generations in the Netherlands and Denmark condemned to a historical fate by those in charge during/prior to WWII.
Early on there’s eerie foreshadowing about where things are ultimately headed when Bjorn goes searching for his daughter Agnes’s stuffed rabbit, Ninus, after it gets lost while they’re vacationing in Tuscany. After Bjorn returns with the rabbit Patrick tells him: “That‘s very heroic of you.” This sets in motion a duel between heroism and cowardice for Bjorn, who experiences various moments throughout the story where he chooses cowardice rather than even the smallest modicum of heroism which only further ensures his family will suffer.
Following a tense and awkward moment between Patrick and young Abel, Bjorn finally snaps and tries to stand up to Patrick’s perpetual affronts, telling the Dutch couple: “This is about doing what is right.” But at this point in the film, there’s no turning back; Bjorn and Louise, and in turn their daughter Agnes, are past the point of no return because they’ve let Patrick and Karin step far beyond any sense of normal boundaries. By the time Bjorn decides to do what’s right, it’s too late, and only a few scenes later he, Louise, and their daughter Agnes are in too deep to escape what Patrick and Karin have been planning for them.
Again, it’s easy to return to the WWII parallels here at the end of Speak No Evil because, like Bjorn’s heroism arriving too late, Dutch and Danish resistance to the Nazis came after they’d been occupied by Hitler’s forces; sort of like closing the barn door after the horse has already run off. Even further back than that, already in 1933 the Nazis had started the concentration camps to imprison Jews, homosexuals, political opponents, and others they deemed undesirable, yet by 1939, Denmark and the Netherlands were both still neutral towards the war. Even though they weren’t openly supportive of the Nazis their neutrality towards WWII was itself a neutral stance towards the horrors and terror of Nazism. This is the situation Bjorn and Louise find themselves in by the time the film reaches its climax: their refusal to directly push back against Patrick and Karin’s increasing disregard for their boundaries ultimately puts them in a fatal position, one that will haunt their poor daughter for a long, long time.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because you let me.”
The social urge to be polite, crossing conservative and liberal lines alike, extends beyond the social and political, too. The original source urging people to be polite, against all odds, was the Bible. Titus 3:2 from the New Testament reads: “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Tafdrup’s film echoes the Bible on a few of occasions, such as the Dutch family’s boy being named Abel, a Biblical character murdered by his own brother, Cain, or even the Biblical-style punishment of Bjorn and Louise at the end. The entire plot of the film is, essentially, about turning the other cheek—another Bibleism—and what severe damage that can cause if you’re turning your cheek to the evil that other humans do.
In the end, Bjorn and Louise have nobody to blame but themselves. They continually ignore, or downplay, the growing danger posed by Patrick in particular. They allow Patrick and Karin to step over every line imaginable until they realise they’re trapped in a terrifying web from which they cannot escape, and by the time the finale comes crashing down upon the audience, Bjorn and Louise have resigned themselves to the fate approaching, not fighting the horror that’s about to swallow them whole. Though it’s perhaps little Agnes whose fate is the worst of them all.
The fates of Bjorn, Louise, and Agnes is the fate of Western society if we continue to allow the most damaging and extreme sociopolitical views to be normalised and treated like abstract theoretical concepts rather than toxic, violent threats to democracy and the literal physical safety of others. Speak No Evil is disturbing and shocking at times. It’s also a frightening fable about the rise of complacency in the face of evil over the past decade.