Alternating between the metaphysical and the mundane throughout a wildly prodigious career—from radical German precursor to virtual global brand—Werner Herzog has chronicled if not carved out humankind’s tempestuous wasteland with the same sense of bravado and folly that haunt his protagonists. Indeed, Herzog is the duke of a “horrific sublime,” the Nicolas Poussin of cinema whose seasons are all flush with cruelty, both natural and manmade. His 1971 documentary Land of Silence and Darkness is considered quintessential “early” Herzog, meaning it probably evinces an ambitious ideological underpinning cut with a stark humility in relation to its conception; verité meets otherworldly. Situated chronologically next to his hallucinatory sci fi doc Fata Morgana (1971), Land of Silence and Darkness is a considerably more conventional reportage, within which however there is an implicit metaphysical consideration of the mundane. Or, rather, that the mundane is simply that which we haven’t yet penetrated with sufficient, emphatic inquiry.
Given the spectacular nature of Herzog’s “embarrassed landscapes,” Land of Silence and Darkness is unique for calling into question the very notion of spectacle and the embodied capacity to see, or hear, at all. It is of course part of a Herzogian perverse irony that his chosen tool—cinema as a catalyst of the communicable—is put in the service of an ineffable condition, a paradox that divisively figures in his, and this particular film’s, reception as either deeply humane or structurally exploitive. The ethos of documentary filmmaking is of course historically conditional, but one can easily have the impression that, watching (nearly a half century since its conception) the story of a deaf-blind German woman who overcomes her own limitations in order to help those similarly disabled, an earnest Herzog is compelled by the sheer courage of this woman, Fini Straubinger, whose dignified management of limitations is a universally instructive case-study. Retrospectively, it is the smaller canvas worked by Herzog that resonates so broadly, here the world of deaf-blind institutionally and familially marginalized, literally seeking out something to hold onto to, even if it’s a tactile alphabet that one sequence rather breathtakingly demonstrates (if ever a glove could be deemed magical…).
Land of Silence and Darkness is an enduring curiosity within Herzog’s oeuvre for being less about the bravura framing of its subject in a hostile environment and more about the bravura with which its subjects frame their (ir)reality, one circumscribed by sight and sound but imaginatively reconstructed for their improved inhabitation. This project echoes through Herzog’s work, notably in his narrative and emotional investment in the story of Kaspar Hauser (Every Man for Himself and God Against All or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974), who lives in a liminal state of civic assimilation, “full of basic and uncontaminated human dignity” (Herzog On Herzog). This dignified subject is embodied by Fini Straubinger in a way that transcends her on-screen presence, such is her agency within the deaf-blind community, that Herzog is forced to submit to something radically unknowable. The use of Bach and Vivaldi over a blank screen initially attempts to simulate an empathic mise-en-scène, but it’s clear that such a strategy is inherently problematic. Straubinger articulates, with a keen diction that belies her deafness, the story of an accident as a child that would eventually leave her without sight or hearing, a heartbreaking but unsentimental story whose very transmission is something the director/audience can take for granted as a kind of privilege. The film’s power derives from this disparity of visually unremarkable but ultimately ontological perspectives.
One memorable sequence aboard a train conveys a sense of the film’s concurrent worlds running parallel but never converging, despite the camera’s impression of unified space and shared experience. The shot pans away momentarily from Straubinger to take in the passing landscape, available only to seeing eyes, as she relays a labored but necessarily abstract analogy to summon the experience of deaf-blind persons:
“If I were a painter” she says, “I’d represent our condition like this: ‘Blindness as a black river, flowing slowly like a melody, toward great falls. On its banks, trees and flowers, and birds singing sweetly. The other river, coming from the other side, is as clear as the purest crystal. This one also flows slowly, but without any sound. Deep down there is a lake, very dark and deep, where the two rivers meet. Where they join, there are rocks, making the waters foam…..to let them flow silently and slowly into that sombre reservoir, which lies in a deadly calm only troubled by an occasional ripple, representing the struggle of the deaf-blind.'”
A startling and unintelligible “painting” has been created in the mind’s eye, not least for its contrasting images and sounds, commingling, yet toward no discernible end other than a sombre reservoir lying in a deadly calm. “I can’t explain it any better,” says Straubinger, recalling the poetics of Paul Celan, whose pained language was the only thing that “remained secure against loss, in spite of its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses” of the post-Holocaust. In Straubinger Herzog has located a source of inviolability in the face of adversity, a sense of pure “existential being in a ‘senseless world,’” according to J. Hoberman. In the film’s Bavarian travels with Straubinger and the institutional outposts of her habilitating work, Herzog alights upon this theme as it materializes in starkly candid displays: a young boy, deaf-blind at birth, overcoming a fear of water; another who can’t walk and is resigned to preverbal expression, learning to communicate by touch; an older man neglected by his family, who resigned to living among cows, and is unsuspectingly united with the reassuring presence of a tree.
Such tactile encounters both involve and question the limits of a nominally haptic cinema (see The Skin of the Film, by Laura Marks). The optical essence of film enlists the audience in a visceral way, just as filmmaking entails physical gesture (which Herzog more closely aligns with sport). Yet Land of Silence and Darkness more profoundly renews a consideration of materiality and communicability from the perspective of its absence rather than its plenitude, forcing the viewer into a dramatic but not too dramatized encounter with persons who are learning to “know” water or words or trees. So too are notions of normalcy exposed to healthy skepticism (“the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities, the problem is the way normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person” says Lennard J. Davis, Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, The Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century). The passage involving young Harald, allowing himself to be immersed in the shower’s spray with a sense of giddy discovery, lies at the film’s emotional core, which Herzog attempts to capture with some sense of commensurate discovery. The camera tilts up into the flow of water where it meets the boys hands, then returns to his joyfully contorted face, and then zooms out to reveal his frail and vulnerable body as it’s baptized by nature, escorted by culture. As a summation of Straubinger’s project, it’s a miraculous sight to behold, and it is to Herzog’s credit that he carries out the beholding work of documentation with non-aggrandizing magnanimity (though he could be faulted for frequently leaving Straubinger’s translator out of frame).
“It’s very difficult to guess at the thoughts of our pupils, how they think, what they feel,” says one teacher, with great humility. Can a film claim any greater ambition? The institutionalized man who provides Herzog with something approaching a denouement is at once the object of our voyeurism and impervious to it, factors that play to our notions of pleasure as well as discomfiture as spectators. His momentary wandering in an arbored courtyard is seized upon by Herzog, perhaps opportunistically, as he reaches into the limbs of a tree, conferring the reality of both it and himself through contact. The tree of life appears, in the end, quite ordinary. The camera finally lingers on Straubinger, herself beneath the canopy, and one may be provoked by the realization that Herzog has revisited a sentiment laid forth by Rilke in another era, no less human:
She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.
—excerpted from Going Blind, Rainer Maria Rilke