What intrigues me about this 1971 film by Werner Herzog is how straight-up it’s shot, narrated and structured. In Land of Silence and Darkness, it’s almost like he wasn’t sure what to say about the subject, so he let her speak for herself. So to speak. And she has plenty to say, even though she’s deaf and blind. At the time this film was made, people with disabilities had not yet received the kind of attention that would improve their living conditions in later decades. This film probably played a role in helping bring awareness to the issue, but in the end it is a compassionate examination more than a rallying call to action.
Synopsis: What’s it like to be deaf and blind? Meet Fini Straubinger, a German version of Helen Keller, who somehow maintains a strong connection connection to people around her and a genuine interest in helping others locked in a prison of darkness and silence. She’s able to speak better than most, because she didn’t lose her vision or or hearing until she was a teen. The film features lengthy sequences of others who are less fortunate than her, in various stages of development. In the end the film is less a story with a beginning, middle and end, and more an investigation into the nature of being, and a metaphor, perhaps, for humankind’s struggle to grapple with the big existential questions.
Story Structure: The film (in German with subtitles) is structured around the story of Straubinger, and she tells the story herself in an interview setting. The first part of the film is mostly blackness with only her voice retelling what she remembers of seeing, and when she describes something particiularly vivid (such as clouds or ski jumper) we see momentary clips of these things. Great way to get into the film. The opening sequence ends with Straubinger sitting on a bench with her interpreter who is asking her questions for Herzog by spelling the questions into her hand.
Narration when used is NOT Herzog’s voice (he had someone else do it), and it merely elucidates facts, rather than offering comment or reflection, as his later more personal films do. We spend a lot of time in the film with other characters, simply observing what their lives are like: a birthday party, taking a swim, a visit to a cactus garden in which all the blind eagerly touch the sharp cacti as if stroking a pet. One uplifting scene early in film is when Herzog arranges for two of the blind ladies to take their first airplane ride.
Cinematography: Even this early in his career, Herzog did not shoot his own films. The cinematographer on this film was a frequent collaborator with Herzog, Jorge Schmidt-Reitwein.
Editing: Lots of very long sequences without cuts of any kind. Most everything else simply cuts. Family photos are simply displayed in frame, with arrows showing who she is, with no movement of any kind within them.
Sound and Music: Orchestral, classic music. Haunting violin and strings. Some of the audio recording isn’t that great, suggesting low budget film made by a couple people.