Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
We are all, in one way or another, moving through this universe blind and deaf; experiencing what truths our limited senses can pick up, believing we know how the world works, but always looking for something outside ourselves, and never realizing how lost we are until we find it.
Magnificent Bastard sez:
#92, April 21, 2011
I started this movie over a month ago. By the 18 minute mark, I was so disturbed that I had to turn it off. That’s never happened before. And that’s why you should see this movie.
Fini Straubinger, deaf-blind since her teens, travels Germany, visiting other members of the deaf-blind community. Herzog follows her on her journey, at times a silent observer, at other times inquisitive, at all times respectful. Herzog the commentator is largely absent from this film, Straubinger needs no commentary. Still able to speak, she communicates the struggles of the deaf-blind with the voice of a poet.
Early in the film, Herzog uses footage from a gathering that Fini had organized, a party for the deaf-blind, each of them with their own interpreter. The deaf-blind communicate with their interpreters, and each other, by drawing on the hand, using a complex system of pressure points and slides to represent letters. It’s quite fascinating to watch. Fini is introducing herself to everyone who comes in, and occasionally introducing them to Werner. One woman comes in, and Fini reminds her companion to interpret everything that happens. Even though she still sees somewhat, this will fill in the gaps. She adds:
“But they also need help, so they don’t find themselves unprepared in the land of silence and darkness.”
That’s when I lost it. I started thinking about what it would be like, to be blind and deaf. That didn’t go well. I went to dark places. Living hell came to mind several times. My favorite things in the world are music and movies, what woud I do with myself if I were cut off from them? Insanity is surely an option, for I’m going insane simply thinking about it. I’m not sure I’d want to live. And wait. My vision is deteriorating. My grandmother lost her eyesight. And her hearing. I’ve got tinnitus. I’m going to be deaf-blind. Before the panic attack was able to get a firm footing, I turned off the movie and went for a walk. 6 weeks later, I was in a much better place and could approach the movie once again without having a hypochondriacal meltdown. Or so I hoped. For Herzog, I was willing to at least make the effort. While I still still could.
After getting past the initial shock of the setup, I realized the film wasn’t all doom and gloom. We get to see the deaf-blind at the zoo, where they get to play with all the animals. The zoo never lets me play with the chimps, or handle the baby elephants. I guess that’s something to look forward to. The zoo also provided the one true Herzog-ian moment in the film. I’ve found that most, if not all, Herzog films will have at least one protracted scene of animal insanity. Whether it be monkeys over running a raft, chickens cannibalizing each other, an alligator walking down the side of the road next to a dead alligator, or a little person laughing at a camel who can’t decide whether to stand up, lie down, or defecate, there’s always an animal doing something strange. I’ve become so fond of them that I’m always looking for them, waiting for them to happen. For a film as poignant as Land of Silence and Darkness I thought perhaps he’d make an exception. I was therefore almost completely unprepared for the extended scene of a baby goat running away from the deaf-blind, screaming as if it were being tortured by a crazed German film maker.
Although the film at first seems to be the story of Fini Straubinger, or the struggles of the deaf-blind, it’s more about communication and isolation; how we perceive the world around us, and how we interact with it. The film begins with Fini and her interactions with a host of deaf-blind people who lost their vision and hearing after they learned to communicate. Many of them can still speak, and their interactions with the world seem to be driven by a need to communicate with others. By the end of the film, we’re exposed to several people who have been deaf-blind from birth, who have no concept of the sighted, hearing world. What do they understand of the world around them? Do they recognize the existence of other human beings, or do they believe themselves to exist in a type of limbo, perhaps the only sentient beings in the universe? One of the final scenes of the movie involves one such man, deaf-blind since birth and exhibiting almost no awareness of others around him. He wanders away from his keeper, and discovers a tree. As he explores the branches and leaves, he finds the trunk. he explores the larger branches, feeling them, stroking them, and finally embracing the tree with a desperation that brought tears to my eyes. This image encapsulated the entire film for me. We are all, in one way or another, moving through this universe blind and deaf; experiencing what truths our limited senses can pick up, believing we know how the world works, but always looking for something outside ourselves, and never realizing how lost we are until we find it.