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Land of Silence and Darkness

Werner Herzog has always had a fascination with individuals who exist outside the realm of normal human society. In fictional films like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which focuses on a man raised (if thatís the word) in complete isolation from other humans, or Stroszek, which follows a German immigrant to the impossibly foreign environment of Wisconsin, the director explores what life might be like for those who lack the ordinary communication skills and social norms that the rest of us take for granted. This interest is also evident, perhaps more so, in Herzogís many documentaries, and itís never clearer than in his moving 1971 effort Land of Silence and Darkness. The film is a profile of Fini Straubinger, a 56-year-old Bavarian woman who has been deaf and mute since her teenage years. This indefatigable German Helen Keller is an inspiring figure, embracing life and helping others with the same limitations to come to terms with their handicaps. With the aid of ìtactile translation,î a complex system whereby touching her palm in a particular pattern produces letters and words, she gets around in the world. Itís the sort of subject matter that, in lesser hands, could easily be wrought into a maudlin, manipulative, and even exploitive work. Herzog, of course, is far too savvy for that, but neither does he feel the need to rub the viewerís nose in the grimness of the predicament faced by Straubinger and her ilk. He follows her on her first airplane flight (the expression of wonder on her face at the sensation is priceless), to a birthday party, and, most amazingly, to a petting zoo. Throughout, she remains both a figure of admiration and, inevitably, an enigma. Herzog is smart enough to realize that all he can do is depict her life, and that any attempt to make an audience understand what life is like in her shoes is doomed to failure. Towards the end of the film, Straubinger meets Vladimir Kokol, a 22-year-old Russian who was born deaf-mute and never received any special training in order to communicate with the world. His behavior is literally infantileóhe canít walk, he only eats soft foods, and any object he manages to grasp is pressed against his face and then hurled away. Itís a remarkable instance of the fate faced by those who arenít treated as full-fledged humans, and a potent reminder of how valuable someone like Straubinger can be. The New Yorker Films DVD of Land of Silence and Darkness, presented in German with English subtitles, is bereft of special features except for a pair of short essays in the accompanying booklet. One is by noted psychologist Oliver Sacks, the other a moving piece by Helen Keller. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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