Certainly there are examples where truth has trampled bravado, allowing an audience real perception into the life of the handicapped. There is something uniquely thoughtful about viewing any minority group in empowerment mode, a clichéd chance to champion the underdog, if you will. Perhaps the only genre that treats the social and physical fringe with any kind of consideration is the documentary. Without the need to bow to plotting needs, the overwhelming desire to pour all drama into of a single circumstance, the fact film places the viewer in the cinematic circle of influence of the subject, giving them a chance to judge the people and situations for themselves. One of the best examples of this ideal is Werner Herzog's 1971 masterwork, Land of Silence and Darkness. In the span of 82 amazing minutes, this famed director does more for the cause of the deaf and blind than any number of overdrawn tragedies.
Film fans around the world know Werner Herzog as the director of some of cinema's most daring motion pictures. From Aguirre: The Wrath of God to Fitzcarraldo, he has a reputation of throwing himself completely into his project, turning his films into something more than just an exercise in storytelling. They are personal journeys, attempts by the director to immerse himself in cultures and circumstances where he will learn more about himself as an artist, and therefore more about the subject matter of his movie. Most of the time, he succeeds. He also hopes that the audience gets a similar, symbiotic experience. But he is not perfect in his perception. At times - like 2001's Invincible - he gets lost along the way and turns something special into a derivative and dull pastiche of problems.
So it may come as a surprise that Herzog is as famed for his documentaries as he is for his challenging fictional oeuvre. Over the course of his career, Herzog has made many amazing fact films, dealing with subjects both dense and diverse. He's tackled the raging oil fires of Kuwait (Lessons of Darkness), the shifting sands of the Sahara (Fata Morgana), and the life and times of an adventurer living with wild bears (Grizzly Man) Land of Silence and Darkness, is also one of his best. Along with a companion piece of sorts, 1971's Handicapped Future, Herzog wants to challenge the conventional view of the disabled. And like any great artist, he also wants to challenge the post-modern idea of the cinema vérité documentary film as well.
Land of Silence and Darkness is about connecting. It's an attempt to try and understand the feelings of loneliness and detachment that most of the disabled experience - none more so than those who cannot see or hear. Our guide through this sobering, sensational story is Fini Straubinger, an incredibly well spoken, demonstrative woman who views her life in a series of stages. Before her injury - and eventual disability - she was a precocious wild child, free to do what she wanted and felt. But her sudden loss of senses caused her to reconsider her place on the planet. It took 30 years, but she finally decided to be an active participant in society, not a burden to it or its citizens. Straubinger now makes it her goal to "release" other like-afflicted individuals, to use any means necessary to unlock their insular universe and get them relating to those around them. It is not an easy struggle, considering that this is Germany in the late 60s, a country that - like the US - would rather warehouse their unwanted citizens than provide the simple services they need.
This is not an exposé on shocking or degrading treatment ala Gerald Rivera's wonderful work on the Willowbrook story. Indeed, what Herzog hopes to achieve is something less political, yet far more powerful and more personal. Fini Straubinger is the main focus of this feature, and she has a distinct group of friends around her that we also get to meet and know. Yet Herzog has another idea up his sleeve, one so deceptively simple that it turns the notion of what a documentary can and cannot be on its severely structured head. Instead of selling us on a single viewpoint, or using his "characters" for a cause celeb, this daring director wants to get us involved on a deeper, more individual level. And he achieves this by doing very little at all.
Herzog's most daring choice here is definitely not in the subject matter, but in how he decides to depict it. Instead of giving us a standard linear narrative, a simple story of Straubinger and how she overcame her obstacles in life, we meet the woman fully functional. She takes up the cause for the handicapped in Germany, and makes several personal appearances and appeals for better care and consideration of the blind and deaf. She visits hospital and asylums, places where most of these "unmanageable" people end up. She sits in on political conferences and organizes meetings. Herzog makes it very clear that this is not really a movie about Straubinger and her struggles. Instead, Herzog will use the lady as a conduit, a way of getting to the true point and purpose.
Over the course of Land of Silence and Darkness, we follow our "guide" as she visits and voices her learned ideas. This allows us to meet several individuals, each one besieged by their own battle with severe sensory depravation. There is a 48-year-old woman who has had to be institutionalized, since no one but her now dead mother was able to communicate with her. A sister shows concern that her brother, an older man growing ever more blind and deaf, does not want to learn to communicate. We come across two young boys who are just learning to use tactile translation and fingerspelling to experience the world. There is another young man, a 22 year old manchild who has never been educated, and an old man living with his much older mother in a nursing home. Each set-up is the same: we have someone that the productive, proactive German society has no idea what to do with, an individual who has lost their sole human connection to the world via death or desperation. And now they are truly lost, unable to participate with other people or places.
Yet instead of giving us background and history, Herzog does something far more powerful. He focuses the camera on these bewildered individuals and simply lets the film run. Instead of trying to tie their stories together or form them into something concrete and centered, Herzog wants us to confront our own fears and phobias, to purge our preconceptions and actually observe how these people relate to the world. For the young boys, life is a series of challenges to overcome and frustrations to vent. Yet the amazing moment when the oldest takes a shower, allowing the water to cascade and stream over his underdeveloped body, proves there is happiness behind the seemingly impenetrable wall of isolation. When Straubinger visits the old man in the nursing home, the mother is a measured magpie of disappointment and decisions. But Herzog leaves their conversation unattended (and un-translated) as he moves his lens in the direction of the man, whose wandered off and into the branches of a nearby tree. His focused, physical approach to the branches and trunk is a wonder to behold.
All throughout Land of Silence and Darkness, Herzog removes cinematic commentary to allow us to make up our own minds. He lets us sit in judgment and determine destinies for ourselves. Of course, we agree with the consensus that the 22 year old may never be reachable, as we have witnessed his feeble, infantile attempts at communication (which are nothing more than a series of unintelligible mouth movements and noises). We understand that the asylum patient doesn't belong with the others, many of which seem to be secretly battling their own inner demons with far more difficulty. We see the boys opening up, speaking and interacting with their teachers and each other. Indeed, almost everyone we come across, from the most active individual to people more lonely than mislaid, seems to enjoy the simple concept of individual contact. Herzog's defiant humanism can probably be traced to his work in this film, and the documentary genre in general.
Herzog's wisest move, however, may be that he doesn't proffer an agenda or force his philosophy onto or into the material. He wants the audience to drink it all in - the joyful plane rides and trips to the zoo to interact with the animals, the moving poetry recitations during a banquet, the frustration on the faces of teachers and workers - and make up their own minds. This director does not care if you dismiss the pleas for understanding, or weep with ecstasy as some of society's "poor souls" experience the simple pleasures of living. He is not concerned if you conclude that an individual's desire to have a normal existence is impossible when someone has decidedly abnormal functions. He also is unmoved if you directly connect with the subjects and experience every emotion they are feeling. Herzog is just painting the picture, adding the images to the canvas. He leaves it up to you to decide what they mean. In essence, Land of Silence and Darkness is an imperfect mirror. It offers up a reflection based on elements both faultless and flawed. What we see is as significant as what is shown.
This is why Land of Silence and Darkness is a great documentary. It allows the audience to make the discovery, to join in the journey and reap the rewards of the trek. It takes us into places we rarely visit, meeting individuals many of us will never know personally. Through its focus on detail (the tactile fingerspelling system, the frantic fun of playing with a tame chimp) it delivers the big picture pronouncements that most fact films miss. And it indicates that, at his very core, Werner Herzog is a director who completely understands human beings. He is attune to their nature and awash in their spirit. No matter the imperfections or handicaps, their social status or metaphysical classification, he finds the essence within. When it's done in service of someone as special as Fini Straubinger, the results can be more revealing than any dry dramatization. Land of Silence and Darkness is one of the great films of all time, and one of Herzog's greatest triumphs.