TSPDT rank #870 IMDb Screened January 6, 2006 on DVD, South San Francisco, CA In some ways it's hard to believe that this was made by the same Werner Herzog who a year later would issue his expressively exotic Amazon River epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God. At first, I found this to be a cold, seemingly artless documentary about people who either are born or have become deaf-blind. Herzog explores his topics in a somewhat plodding episodic fashion that requires attentive viewing to follow, but, like many of his other works, ultimately offers a moving if disturbing meditation on the outer parameters of human existence.
The film focuses on one woman, Fini Straubinger, who lost her sight and hearing from a childhood accident, but has become an outgoing advocate for the deaf-and-blind community in Germany. She is helped by a seeing woman who communicates with her by writing on her hand. Through Straubinger we get a glimpse of various facets of life among the deaf-and-blind.
There are some moving sequences throughout, such as Straubinger's first flight on an airplane, during which she and her companions communicate their excitement to each other through their hands. (as an aside, I wonder if Herzog meant for this early flying sequence to allude ironically to a similar one involving Hitler in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will). During a visit at a school for deaf-blind children , a child enters a swimming pool for the first time and is overwhelmed by the sensation of water all around him. His gleeful reaction to water pouring from a shower is also a sight to behold.
Then there is Vladimir, a 22-year old so neglected by his family that he was never taught how to walk. His primary behaviors include blowing raspberries and bouncing a ball somewhat abusively against his head (it's perhaps the most disturbing sight in the film).
Straubinger, in an attempt to initiate social therapy, places Vladimir's hands on a radio. His response is remarkable; he even seems to crack a smile. "He feels there is life inside" Straubinger observes, and there's a surge of hope that communication can take place with someone like this.
In a way it lets us off the hook. We want to believe that Vladimir enjoys the radio in some way similar to us, but who knows what that radio, those raspberries, that ball crashing repeatedly against his skull mean to him.
Vladimir is not the only one who endured negligence at the hands of family members who were either outright abusive or could find no way to communicate. Straubinger's final visit is to Heinrich, a middle-aged blind-deaf man who, neglected over a period of time by his family, took to sleeping in a stable with cows for company. Now living at his mother's convalescent home, he seems less eager to receive Straubinger's friendly assistance than to fondly caress a tree.
With this impenetrable moment of communion as one of the final images of the film, Herzog chooses to rest not on a simple note of optimism or advocacy for the disabled, but more a sense of respectful puzzlement at the ways people find to touch the world around them. It's less about the plight of these individuals than about the restless drives and impulses inside all of us, and the search for the means, despite whatever obstacles natural or human, to fulfill them. One grows to appreciate Herzog's no-frills approach (save for some sentimental usage of Bach and Vivaldi at key moments in the soundtrack), in that it lets the starkness of the subjects speak for themselves. However, in my online perusal of writings on the film, I encountered UK critic Neil Young's thoughtful skepticism of Herzog's treatment of the material. Young notes Herzog's admission that at least a couple of Straubinger's lines in the film were written by him. He observes in particular a sequence where Straubinger and her friends visit a petting zoo, where a chimp pulls the gate from Herzog's camera. Young writes, "Itâ€™s a startling moment, quite unlike any other in cinema, but forcibly reminds us of the disturbing fact that, in most cases, the filmâ€™s subjects arenâ€™t even aware that theyâ€™re being filmed at all."
It really is a moment that brings to mind the ethical implications of Herzog's filming and overall treatment of his subject. Perhaps I'm particularly sensitive in this case because of what I've felt with other Herzog documentaries, such as his incredibly shot Lessons of Darkness, whose imaging seems to take as much gleeful delight in the devastated oilfields of Gulf War Kuwait as the abject horror it espoused. I'm still not quite sure what to make of his overdetermining presence in Grizzly Man as he narrates significance into the life of Timothy Treadwell; the scene where he tells a friend of Timothy Treadwell to destroy the tape containing audio of his death makes the matter of the documentarian's ethics quite plain, though it's unclear what to make of such his blunt admonition to withhold information from his audience after dangling it before them. With this film, I am of the opinion that Herzog's formal manipulations are not fully to the task of his subject - he either does too little (letting the camera run to the point of tedium during interviews in proto-Errol Morris fashion) or too much (the music, the fed lines, esp. the pretentious one that ends the film). Fortunately, as with Grizzly Man, Herzog's meddlings cannot outmatch his basic gift for knowing a good story about the mysteries of human nature, and the film is worth watching for the time spent with people all too invisible in society. Especially when they have such wonderful experiences to share:"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 oneâ€™s head. That is a great torture for usâ€¦ It is precisely the same thing with blindness: it is not complete darkness. Oftentimes there are very strange shades of colour in front of oneâ€™s eyes: black, grey, white, blue, green, yellow â€“ it depends."
This little monologue ranks right up there with Rutger Hauer's final speech in Blade Runner: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe... All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."
It was fortuitous to see this documentary early in my project. Not in some kind of "I'm so glad to be able to see and hear" count-your-blessings way, but in a more egalitarian sense. Herzog's film works best not in soliciting condescending sympathy, but in eliciting wonderment at the infinite variety of human perception and experience, and the challenges of communicating those experiences. The challenge that comes with being unique can be anyone's to bear.