Land of Silence and Darkness (West Germany, 1971):
(Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit)

Sights and sounds are film's instruments, yet to Werner Herzog the greatest beauty lurks within those deprived of them. Middle-aged Fini Straubinger, deaf and blind since her teens, rests on a park bench and describes the size of an animal's antlers, eyes darting sideways as she transports the images in her mind to a camera she may not even know is there; Herzog follows her through Bavarian institutions as she meets with fellow wanderers in the land of silence and darkness. "Hello, my sister in destiny," she says to an unspeaking loner in an asylum, though Straubinger takes her handicaps in stride -- deafness is constant noise, she clarifies, and blindness is wavering blurriness, yet none of it constitutes limitations, only elements from an alternate existence. Touch becomes the main way between inner and outer worlds as Straubinger caresses hothouse cacti and cradles a zoo chimp, boys learn to speak words by feeling the vibrations forming inside throats, sign and meaning come together in the palm of a hand. Fiercely averse to any facile sentimentality, she describes her realm in terms where the painterly and the emotional are inseparable: "A black river flowing down slowly, like a melody toward the great falls." Pause. "That's how I feel." Herzog's is the cinema of the senses, the ecstasy of flight and of surging water breaking through all physical barriers, with the real-life heroine journeying through this astounding documentary with a sense of becalmed peace rarely allowed for the director's fictional explorers. Let us take two overwhelming passages, and call it the masterpiece it is. In the fist, 22-year-old Vladimir Kokol, a born deaf-blind never taught to walk, lies in his bedroom, a lumpen figure blowing raspberries and repeatedly hitting his face with a rubber ball; tender touch brings connection, Kokol grinning while pressing a radio to his bosom. Later, 51-year-old Heinrich Fleischmann lets go of his guardian's hand and wanders a park patio, grabbing at the tree branches; his elderly mother takes him back home, Herzog's camera pans left until finding Frau Straubinger by herself, earthbound and elevated, humbled and humbling. Cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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