After all, it's just a ride….

Werner Herzog Season – Land Of Silence & Darkness (1971)

silenceTo most it sounds like a literal hell on earth, trapped almost exclusively within your mind, devoid of aural or visual stimulation, isolated and excluded  from family, peers and an enriching environment. On the surface this is the subject of Werner Herzog’s 1971 piece Land Of Silence & Darkness, documenting the life of Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind German woman who nevertheless leads a fruitful and active life. Through a variety of techniques Fini communicates with friends and acquaintances, marking the piece as both a mediation on communication as much as it queries notions of thought and recollection, as she meets and forms friendships with her similarly sensory deprived friends and acquaintances in the West German care system. Unlike some of the fascinating people we meet on this journey Ms. Straubinger was not born with her condition but suffered the affliction in her late childhood, so she remembers colours and sounds and those other sensations that most take for granted, and when questioned most misses the animals on the farm of her adolescence. Although the film starts with her story many other people and their experiences are plundered in Herzog quest to present the world anew, not through the eyes of these spirits but through their resilience and alternate experiences of the same physical universe, from an oblique and unique angle;

Not only had I not seen this extraordinary documentary before I’d also not read much about it, so coming to this stone cold oblivious was quite an experience. Some incredible revelations are revealed by the dispassionate camera observations, of Fini being isolated to her bed by her rather cruel and unsympathetic parents for 30 years after her ailment struck, yet without much trace of bitterness or depression she retains a  inquisitive curiosity and forward drive. For all its grievous subject matter Herzog doesn’t pity or patronize the subjects, there is no talk of bravery or any heartwarming overcoming of obstacles, as Werner digs deep to reveal deeper human truths, or our ability to adapt and proper in the most difficult of situations. A tactile visit to a botanical garden takes on a quasi-religious dimension, with sensory deprived individuals visibly warming at their remaining senses are blessed with a nourishing  sense of sensation. Yet there is darkness amidst the optimism, as in one quietly harrowing scene we met Ellie, a middle-aged deaf-blind woman who has been consigned to a mental asylum despite being perfectly sane.  The only person who could communicate with her was her mother whom had recently passed away, so Ellie has now all but withdrawn from communication into an internal void, unresponsive to queries and human touch. This is another remarkable cartography of those resting on the margins of society, framed with a selection of elegiac classical pieces from Vivaldi and Bach that Herzog deploys with a somewhat clichéd insistence.  Yes it is sobering and sad in some areas, before soaring with insight into a sequestered corner of the human condition, culminating in one final, extraordinary image – a man caressing a tree;

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