Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit
West Germany, 1971
Review by Martha Fischer
Posted on 11 July 2005
Source New Yorker Video DVD
Features: Directors: Werner Herzog
Fini Straubinger suffered a terrible fall as a child, crashing to the ground in a way that made her neck pop like an exploding firework. Afraid to tell her parents, Fini’s injuries went untreated and, as a teen, she gradually lost both her sight and her hearing. Using the now-elderly Straubinger as a guide, Werner Herzog’s first documentary, Land of Silence and Darkness, explores the sometimes harrowing world of Germany’s blind-deaf with stern resolve.
Over its first half, the film paints an optimistic picture of the lives that can be lived by the blind-deaf community. We see Fini and her companions (though we are never told, it seems they live together in a supervised home) visiting a zoo, a botanical garden, and an airfield. The elderly men and women are guided almost entirely by touch, gingerly fingering a cactus, wrestling with a baby chimpanzee, and caressing an airplane wing. Fini herself is a confident and assertive figure, full of questions and utterly unafraid. She’s clearly frustrated by the acrobatics of the chimp, but never gives up, eventually joking about her struggles. Her companions, while generally less outgoing, nevertheless are affected by their experiences. Watching a tiny blind-deaf woman appear to gaze out the window of a moving plane is heartbreaking; the camera rests on the woman’s face, allowing her profound joy to permeate the film.
The second half of Land of Silence and Darkness is much less optimistic. Herzog accompanies Fini on a trip through Germany while she, under the sponsorship of a national blind-deaf organization, meets with others who share her disabilities. It is on this occasion that we realize how lucky Fini and her friends are. Brought up by people who wanted to teach them, and living in a place determined to help them keep learning, they have a chance to live vibrant lives in spite of their disabilities. The alternatives are horrifying, and Herzog reveals them as objectively as he does the joy and triumph of the first half of his film.
First, Fini meets with a middle-aged blind-deaf woman whose only companion had been her mother. When her mother died, the woman was left totally isolated, unable to find anyone who could or would communicate with her. She stopped trying to talk entirely and was sent to a mental institution. The scenes of Fini enthusiastically trying to communicate with the woman in a room full of dead-eyed, unmoving mental patients are presented without musical accompaniment or explanation, and they are ghastly. Fini later encounters Vladimir, whose parents were so ill-equipped to deal with a blind-deaf infant that they seem to have ignored him completely. As a result, at twenty-two he is unable even to walk. Meticulously dressed by his caretakers, he spends his days sitting on the floor, blowing raspberries, and hitting himself in the face with a rubber ball. When Fini arrives, she approaches him with the bright, assertive optimism that she brings to each task, simply holding his hands, and guiding his to her face so that he knows she is there. When she gives him a radio, the boy hugs it to his chest, captivated by the vibrations of the speakers. Faced with such an unspeakable tragedy, Fini soldiers on, asking questions about Vladimir’s care, and managing to be optimistic about his future.
Land of Silence and Darkness is a story of contrasts, exploring the two poles of life in the deaf-blind community. Furthermore, in an almost offhand way, it shows the viewer what everyday life is like within the community: the struggles of simple communication, and the logistical nightmare of planning a birthday party. Because they lost their hearing later in life, some (like Fini) are able to speak, while others communicate only through an ingenious code system that involves spelling out words on the palm of the hand; each, however, needs a sighted, hearing companion to help them find the hands of those to whom they wish to “speak,” and to translate spoken words into their hands. Watching Fini work with her companion is often dizzying, because Fini speaks to her, while the woman is silent, communicating via Fini’s hand. She and Fini clearly have been together for years, and their ease as a team is such that it is easy to forget that Fini is disabled at all.
One of the things that distinguishes Herzog as a director is his profound capacity for empathy. His gift enables him to get deep inside his subjects, and he is rewarded with moments of stark revelation and clarity. Here, in his very first documentary, that empathy is fully present, and it grants the viewer access to both the most sacred and profane elements of an obscure, if not entirely ignored community of people.