Published on: August 19th, 2001

la guerre est... Fini?

Werner Herzog’s film about a deaf-blind lady named Fini Straubinger has one of the most marvellous of all film titles, ominously evocative and intriguing. What a pity, then, that it isn’t accurate. As Fini herself explains at one point:

One thinks of deafness as complete stillness. But oh no, that is wrong. It is a never-ending noise in the head, ranging down to the lowest ringing, perhaps the way sand sounds, trickling, then knocking, but worst of all it pounds in the head so that one never knows where to turn one’s head. That is a great torture for us… It is precisely the same thing with blindness: it is not complete darkness. Oftentimes there are very strange shades of colour in front of one ‘s eyes: black, grey, white, blue, green, yellow  … it depends.
(screenplay published by Tanam Press in three-film volume, 1980, p188)

Then again, just as we ‘re trying to square Straubinger’s statement with Herzog’s title, she goes and mentions it straight out. At a party for similarly handicapped friends, the solicitous Fini says “this group must be looked after as well so that they are not pushed overnight into the Land of Silence and Darkness” (p189). Did Herzog tell Fini that this was going to be the title of his film, and ask her to drop it into a conversation? It certainly doesn’t sound much like the rest of her down-to-earth dialogue, and it seems odd that the phrase is capitalised in the published screenplay. Or perhaps Fini really did just make it up on the spot, and it caught Herzog’s ear?

One wouldn’t normally want to analyse such details so closely, but Herzog’s methods in Land of Silence and Darkness (henceforth LSD) make it necessary. For the director has admitted that some of Fini ‘s comments and memories are, in fact, his own, including key statements at the very beginning:

As a child, when I could still see and hear, I once visited a ski-jumping event; and this image keeps returning to my mind, how these men were hovering in the air. I watched their faces very closelyI wish you could see that too, once. (p184)
and at the very end, an on-screen caption which reads  “If a World War broke out now, I wouldn’t even notice it.” (p203)

Except  ‘admitted ‘ gives the wrong impression, as Herzog clearly sees nothing wrong in such inventions and additions. He’s never called LSD a documentary, and he’s keen to undermine any notion that non-fiction films can provide an objective form of recorded truth. But does rejecting cinema-verité mean that one must create instead a deceptive hybrid – what one might even call cinema-mensonge?

As evidence of rampant directorial egotism, the bare fact of the additions is troubling enough. It’s as if he either doesn’t trust the strength of the subject, or that he just couldn’t get what he wanted out of Fini herself. And the crushingly banal  ‘world war’ comment isn’t even true. Of course, Fini wouldn’t be able to see or hear evidence of war, but she’d certainly be able to feel the shockwaves of explosions, feel the heat of fires. One guesses that the loss of two key senses would lead to a heightening of the remaining faculties – an enhanced sensitivity to vibrations and textures (words are spelled out onto Fini ‘s hand in a form of sign language). But Herzog never raises the issue.

Nor does he explore Fini’s experiences of the last World War: her age isn ‘t given, but the film was shot in 1970-71, she looks at least 50, and we ‘re told she went blind at 15, then deaf at 18, which means she must have endured the misery of being a disabled person under the Third Reich. But the topic simply isn’t mentioned. Fini recounts some memories of her childhood, including a mysterious fall which seems to have precipitated her condition, but events in the outside world barely seem to impinge at all.

Fini is clearly a remarkable individual, and her condition is the sort of subject that film covers so scandalously rarely. We meet various other sufferers, and in each case the scale of the disability is unique. It ‘s all a question of degree: some were born totally deaf and blind, others have lost these faculties over a process of years. Fini retains 5% of her hearing, and, having been able to hear until her teens, can still talk relatively normally. This enables her to act as a kind of ambassador into the lonely lands occupied by each of the sufferers, a living example of the ‘nicht isolieren‘ (‘not isolated ‘) slogan we see at a government conference on disabilities.

She greets several as  ‘comrades in fate, ‘ and  shows an indomitable determination to make contact with even the most apparently hopeless cases – Fini ‘s attitude reminds us that there really is always somebody worse off than ourselves. The film sets up a chain of communication, from the audience to Herzog to Fini to the people she helps, and the occasional gaps in the subtitling (plus occasional discrepancies between the on-screen subtitles and the text in published screenplay) emphasise the fragmented, unreliable nature of the various  ‘languages ‘ used at each stage.

That these intentions are entirely honourable makes Herzog’s botched execution all the more frustrating. The results are often extremely hard going, and not just in terms of the terrible afflictions on view. The film was made on a very low budget, which goes to explain the general rough-edges, and also the dingy lighting that mars so many sequences, but there ‘s no excuse for his disastrous decision to put manipulatively mournful strings music behind a scene showing a deaf-blind youngster learning to swim.

The undoubted highlight is a zoo trip where Fini and her friends interact with various animals  – including a monkey who reaches out and pulls the gate off the front of Herzog’s camera. It’s a startling moment, quite unlike any other in cinema, but forcibly reminds us of the disturbing fact that, in most cases, the film’s subjects aren’t even aware that they ‘re being filmed at all. It falls a long way short of the roughly similar scene with Joan Allen and the anaesthetised tiger in Manhunter, but the energetic humour of the zoo sequence nevertheless puts the static remainder of LSD to shame.

Herzog includes far too many lengthy sequences of monotonous conversation, and while it ‘s hard not to be humbled and moved by this material, there are numerous moments when it’s even harder to keep eyes open. And in a film which forcibly reminds us just how fortunate we are to be able to see and hear movies at all, that ‘s the last reaction we should ever be made to feel.

Neil Young

19th August, 2001 (seen Aug-10-01, National Film Theatre, London)
Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit : (West) Germany 1971 : Werner Herzog : 85 mins