Many associate director Werner Herzog with colorfully-phrased cynicism, and that's certainly understandable: who can forget his chilling monologue on the true nature of bears in Grizzly Man or his bitter thoughts on the jungle in Burden of Dreams? However, an aspect of Herzog's personality that often gets overlooked is his genuine affection for humanity. However cynical Herzog may be about the world we inhabit, he often regards the human beings who inhabit it with awe, respect and love. That side of Herzog is particularly apparent in Land of Silence and Darkness, a beautiful, heartwrenching documentary about people attempting to cope with the loss of two crucial senses.
The documentary's central figure is Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind German woman who devotes her life to helping others in similar situations cope with their challenges. Because Fini didn't lose her sight and hearing until her teenage years (she provides the details in a harrowing, tearful monologue), she is well aware of precisely what she's missing. As such, she's better-equipped to deal with those challenges than many who have lose their sight and hearing, and she's capable of speaking with crisp, clear diction. She communicates with other deaf-blind people using tactile signing, and occasionally wears a fascinating glove that maps out nuances of the silent language.
Most of Herzog's documentaries barely qualify as such, considering that Herzog tends to freely blend fact and fiction while wandering down a series of inspired rabbit trails. However, Land of Silence and Darkness is probably the closest thing he's made to a straightforward doc, and one suspects that's largely because of how much the subject matter means to him. Herzog has stated that this is the film he wants the public to see more than any other he's made, and you see his passion in the long, contemplative, unflinching portraits of people attempting to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “If I had not made it, there would be a great gap in my existence,” the director said.
Herzog doesn't look upon Straubinger or the people she helps with condescending pity, but rather with genuinely respectful fascination. What must it be like to live in a world without images or sound? Early on, the film cuts to black a few times to provide a visual reminder of what these people are experiencing, but such attention-grabbing techniques are quickly set aside as things proceed. In one scene, the camera observes as a deaf-blind boy takes a shower, we watch as he reacts with fear, fascination and bewilderment to the feeling of the cold water hitting his body. It's such a mundane thing for most of us, but this young lad experiences it as something overwhelming and alien.
Straubinger's story is an inspirational one, but she is the exception rather than the rule. Many of the deaf-blind people spotlighted received improper care during their younger years, and struggle in a variety of ways as adult. This is most evident in the case of a 22-year-old who was never taught how to speak or communicate in any meaningful way. He blows raspberries, bangs his head against a radiator and touches his face – valiant stabs at expressing something without any sense of purpose or direction. Straubinger refuses to regard him as a lost cause: “He may never learn to speak, but we can teach him to communicate,” she says with warmth and confidence.
The film's closing moments contain one of the most extraordinary images Herzog has ever committed to film, which is saying something when you consider his body of work. A deaf-blind man wanders through a yard. Suddenly, he brushes against a small tree branch. He grabs it, uses it to guide himself towards the tree and then begins to eagerly explore the trunk and branches with his hands. It's a profound and unforgettable image of a man communing with nature in a way those of us gifted with vision would probably never bother to do. It's a humbling sight, and an important reminder of how much most of us take for granted.
Land of Silence and Darkness
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Year: 1971