Thursday, January 29, 2009

Land of Silence and Darkness

Werner Herzog got his start in the 60s making short documentaries and narrative films for television, finally producing feature-length work at the start of the next decade with the infinitely bizarre Even Dwarves Started Small, a film I was going to review but just couldn't find the words to describe it (perhaps some day I'll give it another go). But Land of Silence and Darkness is the first proper, full-length documentary in the director's oeuvre, and it contains just about all the flourishes and technique Herzog would use in his docs for the next 38 years.

Over the course of its 81-minute running time, Herzog explores the world of the deaf-blind, those utterly cut off from the world around them. But even Herzog's documentaries need a protagonist, and he centers his journey around Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind German woman, as she travels to various meetings and care facilities for others like her. The title of the film derives from an early speech from Straubinger, in which she likens her attempt to help and communicate with other deaf-blind people as a journey through the "land of silence and darkness." However, earlier she mentions that he hears a constant humming and she sees colors and light, however abstract and formless it may be. Also, she never speaks with such lofty poeticism again, leading one to believe Herzog may have fed her the lines.

This willingness to embellish, even to outright lie, is what makes Werner Herzog the most audacious filmmaker alive today, if not ever. His gleeful admission of his own manipulation will certainly put a number of people off his documentaries, but when you hear his explanations for them, you cannot help but love the man. Herzog claims to seek what he deems "ecstatic truth," in essence the deeper themes of life buried under the banalities of human existence. Therefore, he finds someone out there just a little bit off from the rest and lets them dig for that tuth. Occasionally, he pitches in his own shovel.

Yet for all his flourishes, it's Herzog's probing camera that really gets to the bottom of his messages. His footage here is unsettling because he zooms in on his subjects faces, peering into their sightless eyes for what seems like an eternity. Is he being exploitative? Does he think that by staring into those eyes long enough we'll jump into their heads? It's never easy to tell with the man, though I don't think I'd call him exploitative. Hell, if I won't call him exploitative for Even Dwarves Started Small I sure won't toss out the term here. Personally, I think his direction here is meant to unsettle; he's staring as intently as the blind people and, on a surface level, he sees about as much.

Of course, one can never stop at the surface level with Werner Herzog. The message here is one of loneliness and isolation. Sure, Straubinger attends a small gathering of the community where they catch up on old times, but she mentions how difficult it is to organize such a meeting because everyone must bring translators who stay with their wards at all times. Straubinger and the rest of the community communicate with their hands, speaking by tapping and stroking their fingers in the palms of the "listener." I found this method fascinating; it's far more complex than the hand communication Anne Sullivan used with Hellen Keller. At some point I began to see their fingers as tiny dancers moving along palms with grace and beauty. Shortly after, I began to wonder if perhaps I've been watching too much Herzog lately.

Not everyone responds to communication, though. In one of the most upsetting scenes, Herzog sets his camera in front of a 22-year old man named Vladimir Kokol for an agonizing number of minutes. The poor soul sits on the floor blowing raspberries and forcibly hitting himself in the head with a small ball. If Herzog's earlier lingerings were meant to see what his subjects see, then he clearly is having a hard time figuring out Kokol. Unlike Straubinger and her friends, Vladimir has been deaf-blind from birth; not even Fini knows what goes on inside his head. We then see him being taken into a shower after a lifetime of hydrophobia; after all, how do you explain a shower to someone who can never know the definition of water?

The film ends with a pair of equally disturbing images. On the one hand is a man in his mid-40s, who did not lose his senses until he was 35. He could read and write, but when he lost his sight and hearing he completely withdrew from the world. Fini tries to communicate with the hand patterns, but he recoils from her touch as if it burns him. He walks away from the group to a tree, which he gently caresses. Finally, the film ends with the man, his mother, and Fini's translator walking inside, leaving Fini sitting as contentedly on the bench as she was with others around her.

Now, I'm almost certain this was Herzog's work. I'm not saying that Fini requires someone by her side at all times, but the image it creates is so powerful that he must have sent her assistant in the house to capture it. It paints a terrifying portrait of solitude, one in which being surrounded by people is truly no different to being totally alone. Herzog doesn't run the image with words, but I get the feeling he wants us to think of our own lives. Surely we've all been to at least one party in our lives where we seem to know no one there. Some people thrive in such an environment, but others --like me-- retreat, preferring to stand round the fruit punch, that unofficial sun around which the planetary bodies of the awkward orbit. Do we feel any more a part of these parties than those who cannot see or hear them?

For the last two months I've been on a rampant Herzog kick. After finally watching Aguirre: The Wrath of God, I immediately became a fan, and I've since blown through the majority of his feature-length films and a few of his shorts. In Herzog I see perhaps the most realistic of directors, ironic considering his disdain of verité. Yet I believe he has the ability to cut to the very core of the human condition, to seek out extraordinary people and view them with indifference if not outright cynicism and therefore show their accomplishments for what they really are (some hold up, others, like Timothy Treadwell, are exposed as fools). For that reason, Land of Silence and Darkness stands as a minor anomaly. It still teaches us something, but Herzog gives in to sympathy for perhaps the only time in his career; if The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner showed Herzog at last fully awed by one of his subjects, Land gives us a compassionate Herzog, and the result ranks as one of his finest documentaries, eclipsed only by Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

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