Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)

Directed by Caroline Link, Beyond Silence is the story of a hearing girl named Lara Bischoff, whose parents, Martin and Kai, are both deaf. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the film lives up to its hype, presenting a picturesque narrative brimming with understated beauty interrupted by uproars of turmoil percolating beneath the surface. The opening scenes show Lara alerting her parents to sounds, like the sound of her father slurping his coffee. “Lightning is silent, like the moon,” she tells her father during a storm. “It’s thunder that’s loud.” The family’s life is almost picture-perfect—until Lara receives a clarinet from Martin’s sister Clarissa.

Two Worlds

Like Anita, Lara’s conflict with her stubborn father threatens to rend her family apart. As Lara shouts at her father, “You don’t know what’s important! You’re deaf! You don’t even know what music is!” we see the enormity of the strain that Lara’s clarinet playing places on the family. Unlike Anita, however, Lara has her equally headstrong aunt Clarissa to help support Lara’s musical endeavors that her father cannot understand. Martin tells Kai: “I’m going to lose her,” to which Kai responds: “Only if you make the same mistake your parents did.” “What do you mean?” Martin asks. Kai clarifies: “Accept her for what she is. She can hear, and we are deaf.” “She is my child,” Martin protests, and Kai responds: “But she doesn’t belong to you.”

We learn that Martin’s upbringing was not as happy as Lara’s. “I really envy you,” Lara’s grandmother tells her after watching her sign. “You speak that magic tongue as if it were a game. If I hadn’t listened to that pighead, my hands might be able to fly too.” Clarissa later explains to Lara that, during her childhood, she and Martin “made up our own sign language. But the doctors said it was a mistake—that sign language apparently kept him from learning how to speak,” thus driving a wedge between Clarissa and her deaf brother. Their relationship further deteriorated when, at Clarissa’s first clarinet performance in front of a large group of people, Martin begins laughing uncontrollably, disrupting the performance.

After hearing Clarissa say that “sounds are very important for babies,” Lara leans in close to her mother’s stomach, whispering to her unborn sibling: “Hey, you in there, don’t be afraid. Out here, life isn’t completely quiet. When you come, I’ll be here, and I’ll play a song for you on my new clarinet.” In fact, it does turn out that Lara’s new baby sister Marie is also hearing, and Lara is very excited to learn this. She spends as much time talking to Marie as she can.

The Music Inside

Fast-forward to nine years later. Lara is eighteen, a gifted clarinetist, and contemplating a move to Berlin to attend a prestigious music school. Martin is adamantly opposed to the idea, but Clarissa—with characteristic lack of tact—exclaims that “Lara shouldn’t be handicapped just because her parents are.” The ensuing tension drives Lara’s relationship with her father to its stormy nadir. She shouts at him at breakfast one morning: “The silence here, the noise you make when you read the paper—when you eat, when you brush your teeth. This house is like a cage.”

Kai is more understanding of her daughter’s infatuation with music. She gets two tickets to a clarinet concert for her and Lara, and tells her: “When I was little I believed all grown-ups could sing. I also thought I’d be able to when I was a grown-up. I’d stand in front of a mirror and move my mouth and pretend that wonderful sounds were coming out—sounds that made people look so ecstatic, so happy—music!”

At the concert, Lara stands before a giant projection of a Chagall painting. The clarinetist approaches her and tells her, in English: “Listen, the sound of the picture. Can you hear it? He’s a great artist, Chagall. He knows that el mundo is music. You want to know the truth of music?” he asks her. “You don’t need it, you have it inside. Listen to the song inside.” She takes his advice, and at her audition for admission to the music school, she explains to the judges why she prefers klezmer music: “Inside it’s joyful and wild, and at the same time it’s sad and not free. It’s a feeling I understand well.” Her explanation, like the film as a whole, is simple yet moving. Music carries Lara to a world beyond silence, a world that her father might never be fully able to inhabit.

Up Next…

Makibefo (Madagascar, 1999)

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