Sometimes it’s worth reproducing the standard blurb, especially if it comes from the director’s own mouth: “Of all my films, this is the one I want to be available to audiences the most.” Land of Silence and Darkness was filmed in close proximity to Werner Herzog’s essay film Fata Morgana, in which the German director attempted to reestablish his prospective sci-fi film shoot in the Saraha as a free form document of the shifting, living, dying landscapes (m-ore specifically, their optical illusions). The film depicts Herzog chasing both mirages and waterfalls.”
If Fata Morgana used light, wind, panoramic vistas, gypsy music, and visual repetition for hallucinatory effect, the documentary Silence and Darkness strips away practically all audio-visual adornments in deference to its subject matter: the middle-aged Fini Straubinger, a sweet-natured German woman who went both deaf and bind in her teen years following a terrible fall and blow to her head (the neighbor assumed the report of her head cracking came from a gun—in itself an interesting reflection of the malleability of how sound is processed).
Rather than attempt to evoke the sensation of what Straubinger might be feeling with the same strategies of Fata Morgana, Herzog instead chooses to structure his aesthetically spare and verité footage (perhaps taking a cue from the therapist who somewhat questionably explains “it’s much harder to teach [deaf-blind children] abstract ideas; we must give them practical examples”) in a spiraling descent into greater and greater adversity. Not for Straubinger herself, who proves remarkably capable (she is able to speak with clear diction) and mentally equipped to function normally with the aid of her translator, but rather the other deaf-blind people she visits out of philanthropy and her unshaken belief in the ability to reach even the most extremely afflicted souls.
This shift isn’t tonal, or even organizational (though the film opens with Fini and her dotty deaf-blind companion Juliet thrilling to their first ride in an airplane and closes with a long series of visits with increasingly more despairing and hopeless cases of people who were born deaf and blind). Rather it’s through sheer agglutination of visitors that the film, a pithy 81 minutes at that, suggests the psychological heft of Straubinger’s mission as she moves from institutionalized patients who have received professional treatment but suffer from depression, to the content but socially-isolated people who have developed a method of communication with their parents or siblings that only they can ever hope to understand (as opposed to the generally accepted tactile translation that Fini demonstrates with a glove), to the heartbreaking case of Vladimir Kokol, a 29-year-old who was born deaf-blind and whose father (his only guardian) never even bothered to teach him how to walk, so he spends his life blowing raspberries with his lips and hitting himself in the face with a rubber ball.
Though the film’s final title card (“If worldwide war would break out now, I wouldn’t even notice it”—apparently Herzog’s own words, not Fini’s) seems to summarize the director’s respectful but unempathetic stance toward those like his subject, what really emerges from the film is her unwavering altruism and her acceptance that results are the exception and not the rule. Watching and hearing Fini treat her patients is like watching Bob Ross paint. In both cases, their methods are mostly intuitive and you probably wouldn’t want to hang their final products on your wall, but it’s their becalmed craft that compels you, hypnotizes you.
A 16mm film made without much concern for the type of qualities that usually get dissected in this section, New Yorker's video transfer is out of focus, has muddy colors, and uses a print that's marred by flecks and even finishes the film with a nice, blue vertical line down the middle. But that's irrelevant. Not as forgivable, though, is the persistent de-interlacing that shows up more often because of the film's high proportion of hand-held shots. The audio is pretty foggy, and even Fini's clipped diction struggles to emerge from the muck.
If Land of Silence and Darkness is really Herzog's favorite of his own films, you'd think that he'd like to share his thoughts on it in the form of a commentary track. But no. Maybe it's another tactic to get us to feel the frustration of silence.
You don't get a raft overrun by monkeys, but you do get a chimp breaking the fourth wall by trying to tear the lens out of the camera.