Werner Herzog’s 1971 documentary about Fini Straubinger, a German deaf-blind woman, is notable at first for being very un-Herzogian. It is presented as a medical story, the likes of which we used to see plastered all over TLC back when it was The Learning Channel, stories of hope and struggle in the face of various afflictions of being. Herzog’s oft-parodied narrative voice is nearly absent, and when it does interject it is crisp and short and unlike the mad profundity of modern Herzog.
One might easily dismiss the opening story of Ms. Straubinger as the film begins to unfold, a tale of early childhood and a loss of her senses, as the beginning of inspirational pulp. Good inspirational pulp, to be sure, but rarely are such things worth more than the run-times’ worth of emotional indulgence.
But far be it for her to bemoan her fate. Fini Straubinger, after 30 years spent trapped in her own body, was ‘awoken’ to the world of communication again and made it her crusade to help others who are similarly afflicted with deaf-blindness.
Shortly into the film, we’re introduced to a gathering of her friends, many blind-deaf, accompanied by translators who turn speech into the dot-dash shorthand of tactile sign language. It’s a jumble of communication, people speaking in two languages, half the party otherwise unaware of their surroundings. People are asked for who are standing just beside the shot, questions repeated in a loop between interpreters and speakers when misunderstandings occur.
It’s a mess, but it’s the first glimpse into the film’s real aim, to try to communicate the vast gulf of difference between the life of those of us who are sighted and hearing and those who no longer have either of those most paramount of senses. These are people who live in the memories of their senses, who treasure the experiences of the tactile. An early plane ride becomes a moment of wonder as Fini marvels at the sensations of flight. A visit to a botanical garden is like watching people discover a whole dimension to the universe that they previously did not know.
The story turns, as it inevitably would, to those who are born blind and deaf. Fini remembers her days seeing and hearing, time at school, the ability to read and take in the world. But we quickly realize that there are those for whom something as easy as describing a childhood memory might forever be impossible, humans trapped in their own body, deprived of organized input, slow to learn concepts most of us mastered before we were in school.
There is one scene of a boy who is being slowly introduced to swimming. The boy’s reaction to the shower before the pool is one of shock and wonder, and it becomes impressed upon us that even something as obvious as a shower, or water, becomes something frightening and unknown and only dimly understood when you have little language and less frame of reference. Yet even those fearful interactions with the world are hopeful results compared to others, trapped so long in silence that it seems they’ll never be reached, doomed to voiceless existence.
One is struck in watching these people struggle to integrate into the world we know that a film about their ailments is in part a patent absurdity. What would a deaf-blind person have to do with a film? Indeed, for those who were born that way, the very idea seems as alien as trying to describe living in the fifth dimension would be to us. Sight and sound conveying abstract concepts? If all you know is the feel of a tree, water falling on your face, the surprising touch of other beings trying to communicate things you can barely understand, then the whole affair becomes irrelevant to the point that it might not as well exist.
And it seems like Herzog is aware of that. His camera is fond of lingering, but the subjects he shoots are utterly incapable of playing to the camera. They tell their stories or not, act in ways they wish or not, no frame for how it will appear on film. It is without artifice, wholly honest, and utterly compelling. For how little the concept of film might mean to the blind-deaf, it is through that medium that we, in all our good fortune, are brought closer to understanding the ‘other,’ both with empathy and intellectual understanding.