Posted in: Documentary, Essays, Film Reviews

Land of Silence and Darkness: What it Means to be Human

Land of Silence and Darkness(1971) was Herzog’s first feature-length documentary (his previous feature, Fata Morgana [1971] begs to be classed as a metaphysical documentary, but by Herzog’s daffy description, is sci-fi). The subject matter, the struggle for human communication, is such a natural for Herzog that in some ways the film is quintessential early Herzog. It follows Fini Straubinger, a leader of, and advocate for, the deaf and blind in Germany, through a life of constant activity, entertaining and visiting people without sight or hearing. But the narrator tells us that after she first lost her sight and hearing in a fall down stairs, she was bed-ridden for seventeen years. The tremendous drive and will that enabled her, finally, to rise from her bed is now channeled into the almost obsessive drive to communicate that is the implicit subject of the film, or at least its central mystery and driving force.

Land of Silence and Darkness
Land of Silence and Darkness

Herzog seems determined to share her point of view: the film’s opening shot, a distorted black and white image of clouds above a road anticipates her later account of a dream describing her memories from when she could see and hear. But the film’s ability to share her point of view is limited by a perverse tension inherent in trying to use film—a medium that communicates solely through the senses of sound and sight—to examine people who can neither see nor hear.

Lacking words, Fini communicates with others and perceives the external world through touch. The film describes a touch alphabet, in which different types of touches express verbal symbols. But the most telling communication in the film comes from touches that create a sensory sharing more immediate and less ordered than language.

Roughly the first half of the film observes Fini meeting people who once could see or hear; some of them retain a residual grasp of language. And Fini herself is remarkably verbal, talking almost compulsively through the film. But the most evocative and powerful sequences are sensory: old people experiencing the sensations of flying in a small airplane or touching a plant in a botanical garden or the animals in a zoo. Later, a boy born blind and deaf cannot master language but vividly experiences water: he wets his head or fills his mouth with water, but refuses to submerge himself completely, and the narrator recounts that it took a year to coax him into the water at all. But now his experiences of water—the jets of a shower or partial immersion in a swimming pool—are ecstatic and mysterious. At moments he breaks from his instructor’s grasp, venturing off alone in the water, his senses shutting him off from all human contact. His outstretched hand thus becomes a powerfully evocative symbol of both the power of human contact and its fragility: the act of reaching risks that the outstretched hand might not be taken, that the bonds linking him to others might be severed. Herzog doesn’t treat this as entirely frightening: after the boy eludes his instructor he makes his way to a shower, feeling along the wall for the handle, and turning the shower on. As the streaming water cascades on him he seems to experience a purely tactile stimulation beyond verbalization,

The film’s exploration of human communication inevitably touches on the larger question of what it means to be human. For Fini, the capacity to communicate, to share her feelings and her love for others seems central to her being. But for the boy in the pool, ties to his fellow humans seem far less urgent or important. Later, the film shows Vladimir, a 22-year-old born blind and deaf and—from his appearance, perhaps retarded as well, as visually isolated, alone in the frame. Locked away from human contact in his youth, he displays few human traits: he does not use his teeth to eat, masticating soft food with his gums; instead of using his vocal chords to make sounds, he does so by blowing air through his lips. Other than when he stimulates himself—hitting himself with a ball for example—we have no way to tell what he perceives, or to infer any logic or pattern to his actions. The interior world he inhabits is private, inviolable. And when Fini tries to make contact with him, it is hard to understand how he is responding to her, although there are moments of touching where he seems to respond to her directly. When the brief and tenuous link breaks at the end of the sequence, Fini offers a simple explanation for his withdrawn, self-absorbed behavior: “I think he’s bored.”

The film’s final sequence is of a man who has lost his sight and hearing and completely withdrawn from human contact. He responds only cursorily to his mother (one reason for his withdrawal was parental neglect). As the sequence concludes the man, still evidently indifferent to human life around him, stands up and walks away alone, the camera following him as he makes his way across a lawn and past some trees. Finally, he runs into a tree limb and carefully, with a curiosity and warmth he has not previously displayed, explores and caresses the tree, finding in its shape and touch an object he may feel as more kindred than the humans he has just left behind. The camera follows his wanderings at a distance, with branches occasionally appearing in the foreground, until his minder reclaims him and returns him to his lodgings. The film ends with Fini standing alone under a tree, a low-hanging limb in the foreground reasserting the distance that separates the camera and, by extension, those of us who see and hear, from this magnificent woman, so precariously—despite her constant efforts—linked to her fellow humans from within her land of silence and darkness.

© 2009 David Coursen

Land of Silence