Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In addition to having real emotional resonance and dramatic sweep, Beyond Silence (Jenseits der Stille) is one of the best-acted motion pictures of the '90s. Inexplicably, despite being nominated, Beyond Silence did not win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and it remains unclear how widespread its eventual North American distribution will be. Regardless, this is a motion picture that, given the opportunity, no movie-lover should miss.

Beyond Silence has the capacity to appeal to a broad range of audiences, because the subject material is so rich and multi-layered. The film, which takes place in a re-unified Germany, is filled with symbolism and thematic depth relating the communications difficulties of one family with those of the nation as a whole. But Caroline Link's brilliant character study does not dwell overmuch on these intellectually-tantalizing issues. They are there for those who make an effort to seek them out, but the movie exists primarily to satisfy on an emotional level. Beyond Silence truly involves the viewer; the characters and situations become so immediate and real that you feel like dancing or weeping with the protagonist.

She is Lara, the sprightly and gifted daughter of a deaf man, Martin (Howie Seago), and a deaf woman, Kai (Emmanuelle Laborit). When we first meet her, Lara is a precocious 8 year-old child (played by Tatjana Trieb) who is wise beyond her years. She is devoted to her parents, and uses her ability to sign (their language) and speak (society's) to translate for them in business meetings. She frequently leaves school early, jeopardizing her own education, to help her parents when they need someone to be their ears and mouth. She is the bridge between their realm of silence and the noisy world outside. Lara idolizes her musician-aunt, Clarissa (Sybille Canonica), a red-headed clarinet player who is engaged in a long-standing sibling feud with Martin. When Clarissa presents Lara with a clarinet, the little girl is enthralled, and immediately sets about learning how to play. Martin is angry, in part because of Lara's infatuation with something he cannot understand or participate in, and in part because he is jealous that the childless Clarissa is attempting to steal his daughter. Kai advises patience, however, warning that if Martin does not treat Lara gently, he risks losing her.

Flash-forward ten years (the transition, by the way, is seamless). Lara (Sylvie Testud) is now a young woman and an accomplished clarinet player. She is so good, in fact, that both Clarissa and her music teacher encourage her to study professionally at a renowned German conservatory. Martin opposes the idea, but, with a little prompting from Kai, he allows Lara to spend the summer with Clarissa and her husband, Gregory (Matthias Habich), in Berlin, where she can prepare for the entrance exam. While there, she meets Tom (Hansa Czpionka), a teacher of deaf children, and falls in love. But tragedy is about to strike.

Filmed with less assurance, attention to detail, and focus on character, Beyond Silence could have easily turned into an overwrought melodrama or a pathetic "issues movie" championing the cause of the disabled. But director Caroline Link, making her feature debut, keeps the film carefully on target, never losing sight of the human element of the story. Lara's complex relationship with her parents and her aunt are fully explored, as is the friction between Martin and Clarissa (the reason for this is explained in a particularly effective flashback sequence). Most notably, Link draws the audience fully into Lara's divided world. A scene in which she and Tom dance to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" is uplifting and effervescent. Later misfortunes tug at the heart, but without a sense of coldly-calculated manipulation. Through everything, Link avoids the slippery and easily-taken path that would descend into pure melodrama, allowing a certain joie de vivre to imbue the entire picture. And, as icing on the cake, Beyond Silence ends on the perfect note.

The cast is truly international in composition, and it's a tribute to Link that the filming process went as smoothly as it did. Howie Seago, a deaf American actor, gives a powerful performance as Martin, a man moved by great passions, not the least of which is his despair at being unable to understand the most important force in his daughter's life. Emmanuelle Laborit, a deaf French actress, creates a joyful and gentle Kai, the perfect mediator between father and daughter. As Clarissa, Sybille Canonica is a seductive temptress who is driven by an intricate series of psychological issues.

The most impressive portrayal is split between Sylvie Testud and Tatjana Trieb, both of whom play Lara. Not only are the actresses singularly effective, but they fit together so well that the viewer never loses sight of the character, not even for a moment, when the changeover occurs. Mannerisms, facial expressions, and even vocal inflections transfer from one actress to the other. Testud and Trieb immerse themselves in this role with astonishing results. Apparently, several hundred girls auditioned before Link settled on Trieb, who is making her feature debut. Testud, a theatrically-trained French actress, is appearing in her second film.

The rumor is that Miramax picked up the rights to Beyond Silence not only because they wanted to open the film domestically, but because they were intrigued by the possibility of fashioning an American remake. The very thought makes my skin crawl. Beyond Silence is as close to a perfect film as I have seen this year, and the acting is nearly flawless. It's virtually impossible that any remake could improve upon Caroline Link's film, and very likely that an English-language version would cheapen the material (not to mention nullify some of the uniquely-German subthemes). Regardless of what the distributor ultimately decides, the original Beyond Silence will receive some sort of release, and, given the opportunity, it is an experience not to be missed.

Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)

Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1998-06-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1