It doesn't seem right that there should be "Werner Herzog's first documentary." His career ought to have sprung fully-formed. And yet here we are, with Werner Herzog's first documentary, Land of Silence and Darkness. Or at least it's his first feature-length documenatry, if we don't count the sort of documantary-ish visual tone poem Fata Morgana. And it's worth pointing out that at least a few moments in Land of Silence and Darkness were completely fabricated by the director. These are just some of the reasons that Herzog is my favorite living filmmaker.

That the film is at least partially faked doesn't require research, or knowledge of the director's methods, or even much in the way of cunning analysis; it requires awareness of the film's title. The land of silence and darkness is inside the heads of the film's subjects, several deaf and blind persons. Except that as the main figure in the movie, Fini Straubinger, says early on: there is neither silence nor darkness in her life. In place of silence, there is a constant humming of varying there are shifting patterns of light and darkness, and abstract colors. Yet it is this same woman who refers to her work, trying to communicate with other deaf and blind people, as helping people find their way in the "land of Silence and Darkness." Straubinger is not given to flights of purple prose, and the speech in which she coins that phrase is conspicuously more florid than anything else she says in the film - so was it written by Herzog? Or did he latch on to a rare moment when his star reached for an unexpectedly poetic image?

And that's just the moment that's obvious to the viewer - there are other moments that the director has happily admitted were scripted, just as he has since admitted that some of the most memorable moments in a film as recent as 1997's Little Dieter Needs to Fly were fictions. This tendency has turned people off of the director's nominally documentary work throughout his career, for entirely fair reasons if not necessarily just ones. The director's "non-fiction" films have always contained at least implicitly the idea that a non-fiction film is a complete impossibility, for there will always be matters of interpretation in the act of filmmaking that make "the truth" a much trickier matter than not telling lies. As he wrote in the famous Minnesota Declaration of 1999:
"By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants...There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization...Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts."

Just a few months ago he said much the same thing to The Sunday Times, deriding his old enemy cinéma vérité as
"...films that believe facts alone constitute truth, which is a gross misunderstanding. Otherwise, the phone directory of Manhattan would be the most illuminating of all books. It has four million entries, all of them correct, all of them truthful, and if you call 420 people with the name Smith, they will all answer, 'Yes, this is William Smith', or 'This is David Smith', and you could corroborate it. But I am not into that. I am after something deeper, something that illuminates you."

For those of us who view Herzog's beliefs on truth in cinema with enthusiasm - I am certainly among that cohort - it is deeply gratifying to know that he was apparently already formulating those beliefs 37 years ago.

The director insinuates the ecstatic truths of Land of Silence and Darkness slowly and perhaps even accidentally. In the beginning, the film reads as a typical human interest piece about extraordinary people. Indeed, it is sometimes not even all that good a film: the low budget is obvious in all the poor lighting and lack of multiple angles, and Herzog lets too many moments drag on for several minutes past the point that they serve their purpose. But the subject is, by any standard, worth suffering the sometimes dodgy filmmaking. We are introduced to Straubinger and shown the practical matters of how she communicates in the world (blind at 15 and deaf a few years later, it was a relatively easy matter for her to learn a tactile alphabet consisting of the movements made on her hand by the person speaking to her: left across the palm is one latter, right across the palm is another, up and down each finger makes two letters, and so forth). She is a very open and verbose woman, the only outward sign of her disability being her eyes which shift about erratically without focus; she is proud of her work advocating for the disabled and visiting others with the same afflictions but without the same ability to communicate, to offer them the physical comfort and reassurances that she has a unique ability to anticipate. Along the way, there are a few sequences in which she and others experience new things: cacti at a botanic garden, a petting zoo. The petting zoo sequence is the end of the "typical" portion of the film, and its finest moment: the obvious joy of the deaf-blind in feeling animals that they have never experienced in any context is affecting, but melancholic. Throughout the film, we've been confronted with the idea that the inner mind of a deaf and blind person is undoubtedly a much different place than the inner mind of a well person, but it is in the petting zoo sequence above all that the measured tones of narrator Rolf Illig (who worked with Herzog the same year on Handicapped Future, a TV documentary about the disabled in Germany) points out that we have no way of knowing, really, what it must feel like to hold a living animal when one cannot recognise the presence of another being except by touch.

This shades into the film's final sequence, its most compelling and perhaps its most problematic. Throughout, we've been introduced only to those who lost their sight and hearing through age or accident, but who were all old enough at the time to have the land of silence and darkness be a matter of relearning how to communicate. But now, we are shown those who were deaf and blind from birth, or from infancy. These are people whose minds are unfathomable to us: as the film observes, they cannot be taught abstract concepts, and even teaching them how to relate physical objects to a word is a seemingly overwhelming trial.

The most troubling case is that of Vladimir Kokol, a 22-year-old who we first see sitting on the floor of a small hospital room, blowing raspberries with his tongue and hitting himself hard in the face with a toy ball. Straubinger visits him, but even she cannot begin to understand how he perceives the world, if he has a sense of self or even consciousness in any ordinary definition of the world. At one point she shares a radio with him, feeling the vibrations of the speakers as he clutches it to his chest, and she declares with some happiness that he is glad to feel something living in his arms. But there is no particular evidence given for this.

As far back as 1970's Even Dwarfs Started Small, one year before this film, it has been easy to accuse Herzog of exploitation but not so easy to make that charge stick. But there's no way to be completely comfortable about watching Kokol, who is first shown in a lengthy, wordless take watching clinically as he beats himself in the face. I was unexpected reminded of a moment in Herzog's Grizzly Man, more than three decades later, in which the director dismisses his subject's love for bears with a series of shots of the animals' faces, speaking frankly of his inability to see anything human in their eyes: " I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature." There is a similar feeling to the shots of Kokol, or the young man who we see coaxed slowly into a swimming pool and shower, after years of hydrophobia. The camera is nonjudgmental, but intensely probing, perhaps too intensely, gaping at the sightless faces of these people as though if Herzog looked long enough, he might somehow intuit what they're thinking. This is, on its own, a powerful moment, even overwhelming. Yet it is tempered by something awful: there is literally no way that these subjects can be aware that they are being filmed, nor is it at all likely they could even begin to understand what a movie is. They are being exploited, for there is no possibility of their giving their consent, any more than the animals in the petting zoo could give their consent. This does not invalidate Herzog's work; it intensifies it. Making the audience extremely uncomfortable is one of the highest achievements of art, but for those who like a clear ethical sensibility in their movies, this can only be extremely aggravating.

The last sequence of the film considers a man in his 40s split between the two extremes: he once could see and hear, speak and write, but since going deaf and blind he has shut himself off from the world. Straubinger attempts to communicate with him, even just to comfort him, but he recoils from her touch, allowing only his mother to hold him. After a while, he wanders to a nearby tree, caressing it as his mother, Straubinger and her interpreter talk; none of them seem to notice him, but Herzog's camera keeps panning between the two, taking longer and longer glances at the man, until we finally abandon the conversation and go over to simply watch him. Again, we do not know what he thinks, why he is touching the tree. It is terrifying almost to think about.

Thus at last do we reach the final shot: the man and his mother walk inside, and Straubinger's interpreter follows them for a moment. Straubinger is content to stay outside on her own, and we leave the film watching her sit in silence, not a human being anywhere near her. We are trained to read this image as one of loneliness, but it's far more terrible than that: for Straubinger, there is no difference between sitting alone in a garden or sitting in the same garden surrounded by a dozen people. Her world stops at what she can touch, and for her, every moment is no different from this one in an empty garden under an overcast sky. In the land of silence and darkness, there can only be loneliness.