Land of Silence and Darkness begins as a portrait of Fini Straubinger, who had been deaf and blind since adolescence. After spending decades in bed, she began to experience life and to help others in the same situation. Central to her awakening was learning about finger spelling, which provides a means of communication for those without sight and hearing.
Directed by Werner Herzog, Land of Silence and Darkness begins in an interesting way. While Straubinger talks, the screen remains black. As she finishes describing, then footage of what she describes appears, including road and ski jumpers. After the ski jumpers, she says, “I wish you could see that.”
Because she lost her hearing later in life, Straubinger is able to speak quite clearly. This documentary allows her to speak at length, recounting her story, describing her perceptions, and talking with others. She expresses some depression over the loss of her hearing and her sight, but she celebrates her birthday with her friends.
This documentary exhibits a great patience with its subjects and their means of communication. Finger spelling takes some time to get information across, and it also requires some translation at times from a hearing individual. In two sequences Straubinger and her friends visit botanical gardens and a zoo, where the experience each place by touching. An extended sequence shows her touching different cacti, with one person talking aloud about the cacti and another person spelling about them into her hand.
While Straubinger’s story is the start of this documentary, the second half of it shows her meeting people who are both deaf and blind. One woman lives in an asylum, and a brother and sister live in a house. Some children deaf-blind from birth receive some education. One 22-year-old never received any education, and a sequence shows him playing with a ball and not engaging with anyone. We never will know what is going on in his head. The most poetic of these sequences shows a man who, according to the voiceover, was rejected by humanity, and he spends several minutes wandering through the yard and exploring a tree. The camera patiently observes him as he explores.
The music in this documentary is occasional light strings, but otherwise spare, while the voiceover is mostly exposition. It sometimes conveys a hint of emotion, but for the most part it relies on information.