How do we place ourselves in someone else’s shoes without intruding? Films are meant to actively participate, invading someone’s privacy, getting closer to the action, to the reality of someone’s life, their struggles, beliefs, and so on. It is undoubtedly a challenge that cinema has faced since birth. How to present a lifestyle in its full complexity without being offensive? How can we learn from merely observing? Even the best filmmakers have had difficulties answering these questions. Werner Herzog is known for intrusive, often manipulative style of documentary filmmaking. In numerous documentaries he openly staged various scenarios to fit his narrative (most notably in Bells from the Deep and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) and he often appears on screen as an intrusive stranger, almost like a detective sniffing around a crime scene (in Into the Abyss he literally questions witnesses to a murder and in The Grizzly Man he compulsively inspects Timothy Treadwell’s posthumous belongings).
However, I found interesting how different and yet just as revolutionary his approach was in one of his earliest documentaries, Land of Silence and Darkness from 1971, a film that I believe shifted the focus of documentaries from the filmmaker – the explorer, the conqueror, the protagonist who, like an anthropologist, immerses himself in another world, another culture, another lifestyle – to the subject(s).
One of Herzog’s earliest adventures behind the camera is the study of Fini Straubinger, a deaf and blind woman and her work on behalf other deaf-blind people. Fini is an old woman – she suffered what would become a life-long impediment when she was a teenager and as a result was bed ridden for 30 long years, isolated from the outside world. Her mission is to relate with others who are in a similar situation, break the barrier of sound and vision and help them understand that there is a whole community of people just like them. That they’re not alone. The documentary follows Fini and her translator as they travel around Germany meeting and relating with those who have been institutionalized or abandoned by their families or who simply don’t have anyone to share their pain with. The camera witnesses as Fini embarks on her first airplane flight, visits a zoo, explores a botanic garden, organizes a poetry reading with fellow deaf-blind people and attends a learning session for deaf-blind children.
The secret in this film lies in its simplicity. This simplicity stems from the full belief in the power of observation. Herzog observes. He does not act. Does not try to intervene or modify the narrative. He stands behind the camera and follows along as Fini and other deaf-blind people make sense of this terrifying world. It is terrifying indeed. We may not realize it, but Fini and others do. Speeding cars that cannot be seen, thunderstorms that cannot be heard… the world these people live in is truly the land of silence and darkness, filled with angst, uncertainty and terror.
But instead of going in this direction, Herzog perseveres, showing us how these victims of cruel fate go through life by embracing the unknown and painting their own canvas their own way. In the botanic garden, the group of deaf-blind visitors touch and feel rows of cactus plants. Their palms caress the spikes and as they do so, we see them react in awe. Tall, lean plants with spikes? How marvelous. How unsettling and marvelous at the same time. In the zoo, the playfulness of a baby chimpanzee overwhelms them. So does the curious and kind touch of the elephant’s trunk.
But perhaps, the most moving scene of all is the scene where Fini meets with a deaf-blind boy, Vladimir, aged 22, abandoned by his guardians and left in an institution. The boy has never been looked after properly. He can hardly chew food. His movements are uncoordinated. His body deformed by abuse suffered in the past. Fini places his hand in her hand and begins to communicate with him by stroking his head. The boy initially is wary of this strange and unusual soft and warm thing touching the top of his head. But as the scene goes on, he grows fond of it and insists on keeping Fini’s hand in his. Then, a radio is brought into the room. A radio? I asked myself, but he cannot hear. How is he going to enjoy it?
The camera keeps still as the boy’s hands begin to recreate the shape of the object. They move across and feel the antenna, and finally land on top of the speakers, from which a pop tune is playing. All of a sudden, he takes the radio and clutches it in his arms like his life depended on it. Then, as if in a state of pure bliss, Vladimir produces a faint but generous smile. A smile that can only inspire us to imagine what it must feel like to be Vladimir at that very moment.
It is in this particular scene that I thought myself in amazement, This is the power of observation. Had Herzog tried to cut away from the scene or shift his attention to something else, Vladimir’s smile would have been lost forever. Instead, whatever he was feeling at that particular moment in time, as he held on to that magnificent invention we call radio, was expressed through that smile and recorded in this movie for us, people like me, to see and experience, each one of us their own, personal way. Vladimir may not be alive anymore, as the fate of the people presented in this movie has not been clarified since, but his smile, through Herzog’s camera, is alive and well.
Film, like any other art form and generally man’s quest for meaning (just grab the first history book off your shelf), has always been mostly about intervention, transgression and manipulation. And Herzog, the man responsible for dragging a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, releasing thousands of live rats in the streets of Delft to film a scene in Nosferatu, and manipulating his entire cast and crew into almost killing each other like the characters in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is the prime example of this notion.
However, what he did in Land of Silence and Darkness, a delicately told story about a community of disadvantaged individuals, is show us that choosing the other path, remaining invisible and steering clear of crossing boundaries that should not be crossed, can sometimes be much more insightful and rewarding. By purely observing the struggle Fini and her friends have to face each time they wake up we see beyond it. We see a struggle that if approached with the right mindset, like Fini does, can turn into the most beautiful of adventures. The adventure of discovering the world, bit by bit. Whether by touching the spikes of a cactus plant, or feeling every branch of a cherry tree, or caressing the hairy back of a baby chimpanzee, the life these people live and the way they experience it opens for us a new way of looking at things. The details that we take for granted, through Herzog’s observing eye, become the subjects of so many feelings these people experience. Their lives, despite the silence and darkness, are rich. Richer than most.