In 1971, Werner Herzog was not the stalwart of New German Cinema we think of today. He had made four films – two fiction and two documentaries – and was yet to establish himself. Land Of Silence And Darkness – a deeply affecting, humanist documentary about the deaf-blind community – was the first to truly demonstrate his ability as a director.
The film follows the story of numerous deaf-blind people, but it focuses on one in particular, Fini Straubinger. The film follows her as she travels around Bavaria, visiting members of this community. Her personal strength, optimistic outlook and desire to improve the lives of those around her, is a joy throughout the film.
The film’s vitality comes from its many moments which capture pure human emotion. There are moments of great joy and friendship within the community, and moments of struggle that we, the audience, know will never be overcome. People’s basic interactions suddenly seem like great triumphs, as we watch a language based upon taps and strokes on each other’s hands, used with remarkable dexterity.
However, we also see a 22 year old man who, cared for by his father, had never been taught this language or been encouraged to develop intellectually. His only form of communication is to dig his nails into people. Another person explains that, while some people within the community can develop an understanding of physical objects they will never see, they will never fully comprehend abstract ideas such as ‘hope’ or ‘ambition’.
It is not a film with an instantly recognisably Herzog-ian style. He himself is permanently behind the camera, and his recognisable drawl is not present either (the film is narrated by Rolf Illig instead). Only one moment is reminiscent of his later surreal antics in documentaries (think of the albino crocodiles in ‘Cave Of Forgotten Dreams’ (2011), or his investigations into penguin insanity in ‘Encounters At The End Of The World’ (2008)). A group are taken to a cactus garden and allowed to wander around feeling the plants. At first this seems like an absurd, cruel joke which can only end badly. But instead, for them, it is an incredible sensory experience as they encounter a new texture in their hands.
But Werner’s role should not be overlooked. There is a danger that the film could have become exploitative, looking at this community for the viewer’s entertainment, rather than for the viewer’s enlightenment. But in Herzog’s hands that could never be the case. He is man who merely wishes to have a greater understand of others’ experiences and thought processes. Because of this, throughout the film, we develop a sense of pain during their struggles, and join in on their celebration of the smallest of moments.
One recurring theme of the film is the role of animals. People talk fondly of animals from their childhood. During the film, a group are taken to a local zoo to feed elephants and cuddle chimpanzees. Akin to the cactuses earlier, there is joy in this sensory experience. But additionally, these are interactions with living creatures who, unlike human beings, do not shun this community or treat them differently.
There is a dark, central irony to the film, that cinema – an art-form based upon sight and sound – proved to be such a perfect medium to tell this story. In the following year Herzog would make and release ‘Aguirre, The Wrath Of God’ (1972), regularly named as his greatest film and certainly the one that launched him to international acclaim. However, it is clear that Herzog’s first masterpiece was in fact Land Of Silence And Darkness.