Judge Jesse Ataide battles the silence and the darkness to discover an astonishing documentary.
"Of all of my films, this is the one I want to be available to audiences the most."—director Werner Herzog
Taking into consideration an entire filmography built almost entirely on social outsiders who serve as protagonists, it's not surprising that German director Werner Herzog (Aguire, Wrath of God) searches for similarly complex and isolated individuals when he turns to "real life" in his acclaimed documentary work. One of his most famous forays into the documentary genre, Land of Silence and Darkness attempts to penetrate the world of Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind German woman who turned her great disabilities into a means to reach similarly afflicted people who find themselves stranded in "a land of silence and darkness."
The film opens with Fini recalling a memory from her childhood. "Before I was like this," we hear her voice say over a black screen, "I watched a ski-jumping competition." She recounts watching men in skis fly through the air, and remembers looking at the expressions on their faces. It's a beautiful memory, enhanced by footage Herzog provides of a skier, body extended and rigid, soaring over an expanse of blinding white snow.
The trouble is, none of it is true.
After some research, I found out that Herzog had penned this "memory" himself, and had Straubinger recite it on camera. This revelation regarding what I had initially assumed to be a straight-forward documentary proves that Herzog is up to much more in Land of Silence and Darkness than it initially seems at first glance, and that despite its seemingly simple surface, the film is just as complicated and nuanced as his more famous fiction-based films.
The structure of the film is one way that Herzog manipulates his material to influence the viewer's reaction to what is being depicted. The film starts out on a light note, and one of the opening sequences is simply sublime. Herzog and his crew film Fini and her friend Miss Julie (who is also deaf-blind) during their first ride on an airplane. Their cameras capture something unexpected: expressions of pure, unadulterated happiness. Despite the fact that they can't see the astounding snow-capped vistas spread for miles below them, the mere sensation of being in the air is enough to send the two women into fits of sheer bliss.
>From these early emotionally-charged scenes, it's easy to begin to see Fini and her friends as some kind of glorious hero figures, amazing examples of human resiliency, and demonstrations of the ability humans have to adapt and overcome in even the most difficult of circumstances. In fact, it even begins to seem that these severely disabled people are actually fortunate in their own way—able to perceive and appreciate the world in a way the "normal" are completely incapable of.
But Herzog isn't content to simply allow his audience to indulge in feelings of awe and admiration for long. Soon Herzog begins to delve into the reality of the situation—the pain, the suffering, and the feelings of severe isolation the blind and the deaf experience. In one unexpected moment, Fini describes how she would depict the experience of the deaf and the blind in a picture if she was a painter—a forest scene with a lake full of ripples, as well as rivers full of rocks. But this apparently placid scene takes on a sinister tone as Fini begins to explain the symbolism she means in the images: the lake stands for the unending silence and calm that wraps around the world of the deaf-blind, the rocks stand for the acute depression the disabled experience on a daily basis. This is a brilliant, subtle means for Herzog to begin to shift the entire tone of the film. From then on out, the film is composed of sequences depicting heartbreaking examples of disabled people who are lost in the land of silence and darkness, stranded without communication to the world outside of themselves.
At this point, it seems that Herzog is no longer manipulating or pulling punches, and perhaps because he no longer needs to. Simply by aiming his camera and letting it roll, he forces the viewer to face the desolate world of the disabled. Shots and images begin to linger on for uncomfortable lengths of time as Herzog allows various interviewees to sit awkwardly staring off screen while the cameras roll, and occasionally settles upon the faces of the blind who are unaware they are being filmed. It's an often uncomfortable position for the viewer to be in—forced to confront images of loneliness and pain in a state of detached helplessness.
But after a while, this discomfort seems to be the point. With modern Michael Moore-influenced documentaries functioning merely as blitzkriegs of information done up in flashy editing, the long silences where Herzog allows his camera to simply sit and stare feel appropriately jarring and unsettling—insisting viewers witness harsh reality directly without any prettying up. But isn't that what a good documentary should do? Force the viewer to recognize and ponder something outside of ourselves?
In this respect, Herzog succeeds admirably.
The image and audio of Land of Silence and Darkness is sub-par, but it's difficult to tell how much of the image defects are the result of the original material and how much of it could have been avoided with more extensive restoration. New Yorker did some admirable work with the simultaneously released Herzog film Signs of Life, and Land of Silence and Darkness could certainly have benefited from some similar care. But, when it comes down to it, Herzog's documentary is more about the content than the image or the audio, so the barely adequate technical aspects of the film can be somewhat forgiven.
But it's also disappointing that Land of Silence of Darkness is completely lacking in the extras department (unless one counts two brief essays, a medical account of the deaf-blind condition and a piece by Helen Keller, included in a booklet). Apparently New Yorker felt that simply following Herzog's wishes in making the film widely available would suffice. It's our loss.
Any film that dares to penetrate the silent, lonely world of the deaf-blind is inevitably an important film. That Herzog is able to take that film and craft it into an enduring work of art is an exceptional achievement indeed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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