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Listening to Each Other: On 1996’s Beyond Silence

Before this year's Sundance hit “CODA,” there was the 1996 German film “Beyond Silence,” an extraordinary drama about a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) girl trying to live her own life while growing up on that thin invisible line between hearing and deafness. Although it mainly focuses on her growing yearning and aspiration, the movie also shows considerable empathy and understanding of her deaf parents, who have depended on her for years. The result is alternatively amusing and touching, thanks to little but precious episodic moments generated among the main characters in the film. 

During its first half, the movie lovingly and sensitively depicts its young heroine’s daily life inside and outside her household. Ever since she could speak and understand sign language, Lara (Tatjana Trieb) has frequently functioned as the personal translator for her deaf parents Martin (Howie Seago) and Kai (Emmanuelle Laborit). Several early scenes of the film show us how deftly Lara helps her parents whenever her parents need to interact with others who can hear. For example, she should be a bit tactful and discreet when her parents have a meeting with a local bank employee, and she also sharply reminds the local bank employee later that her parents are the ones talking to him, not her. (Here is a valuable lesson: Always look at deaf people when you are talking with them via a translator).

In her classroom, Lara is often ridiculed for having deaf parents, and she's understandably embarrassed when her mother unexpectedly goes to the school. But she loves her parents, nonetheless. When she gets scared in the middle of one thundering night, Martin and Kai gladly share their bed with their daughter even though they cannot hear anything at all. There is also a little sweet moment as Martin sincerely listens to his daughter describing how thunder actually sounds.

Martin is surely a good father as much as his wife is a wonderful mother, but we gradually come to sense his personal pain when he and his family go to his parents’ house for the annual Christmas party. While Martin’s parents provided him and his younger sister Clarissa (Sibylle Canonica) an affluent and comfortable environment during their childhood years, Martin's father— who incidentally happened to be a music lover—often disregarded and disapproved of Martin’s deafness, so his attention was naturally drawn more to Clarissa, who began to show considerable potential as a musician during that time. During one flashback scene, we see how young Martin felt isolated and frustrated while watching everyone else around him listening to his father and younger sister’s performance, and how his following unwise action led to more anger and pain, which still remain hot and vivid inside him even at present.

Watching Lara beginning to show interest in music thanks to Clarissa, Martin cannot help but then be displeased and concerned. That is contrast to Kai, who has already made peace with the concern that their dear daughter will be more separated from them year by year.

Meanwhile, Lara keeps honing her musical talent with a clarinet given to her by Clarissa. Along with having her aunt’s sincere blessing and support, she also has a school music teacher willing to teach and guide her. Lara has her first big public moment in front of many parents of her school's students, though she cannot help but notice two glaring vacant seats where her parents are supposed to be.

Inevitably, this leads to a conflict that hovers over the film's second half. When Clarissa suggests that Lara should stay along with her in Berlin during the upcoming summer while preparing for the audition to be held at some prestigious conservatory in the city, Lara—now played by Sylvie Testud from this point—is certainly excited. However, their plan happens to be revealed too early to everyone in the family, and Martin is naturally not so pleased. Although he does not stop his daughter, he feels angry and hurt again. The gap between him and his daughter widens.

The movie switches into a more cheerful mode as Lara goes to Berlin and enjoys many exciting things in the city. While she becomes more aware of the ongoing estrangement between Clarissa and her husband, that's the last thing for her to worry about, and Clarissa is ready to show her niece more of how life can be pretty fun and interesting in Berlin.

In addition, Lara happens to have her first opportunity of romance. At a local marketplace, she spots a little girl and a handsome lad having a brief conversation via sign language, and is instantly interested in what they're doing. She's then surprised to discover he is actually not deaf, but the teacher of that little deaf girl. Despite their rather awkward first encounter, it does not take much time for them become attracted to each other, even though he will soon leave for the U.S.

Leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the screenplay by director Caroline Link, mainly known for her Oscar-winning film “Nowhere in Africa” (2001) and her co-writer Beth Serlin, wisely does not try to push its many different story elements into easy resolution. Although we get hopeful moments of understanding and reconciliation in the end as expected, the movie does not look away from many matters that remain unresolved among Lara and her family members.

The movie is carried well by two excellent performances at its center. In what may be one of the most memorable child performances from the last several decades, Tatjana Trieb effortlessly occupies her every scene in the film without looking too cute or precocious at all, and she's especially wonderful in the scene where Lara shows her wily side when her class teacher tries to have some serious conversation with her parents via her translation. Kids are usually innocent, but, as many of us know, they can also be selfish enough to see chances to benefit themselves. Lara is no exception.

As the older Lara, Testud, a notable French actress who was at the beginning of her acting career when she was cast, seamlessly takes over what has been developed so well by Trieb. It may take a bit of time to accept her as the older version of Trieb, but the transition is flawless, and though her speaking voice in the film is actually dubbed, Testud is quite convincing in her character’s steady emotional growth. I must point out that her character’s brief romance feels like a perfunctory subplot, but Testud shines with genuine vivaciousness during this part, and has a fun musical moment accompanied with a certain famous song performed by Gloria Gaynor. 

The movie also depicts its several supporting characters with considerable care and attention. In addition to bringing lots of authenticity to their respective roles as real deaf performers, American actor Howie Seago and French actress Emmanuelle Laborit instantly appear to us a husband and a wife who have known each other for a long time. Their casting is just one of several thoughtfully inclusive aspects of the film, which incidentally included subtitles for deaf audiences when it was released in theaters. In the cases of Sibylle Canonica, and Matthias Habich, who plays Clarissa’s weary husband, both of them are believable with their colorful characters’ respective human flaws. Alexandra Bolz holds her own small place well as Lara’s plucky younger sister. 

Although it came out 25 years ago, “Beyond Silence” still feels fresh and relevant, and it surely deserves a reappraisal considering how much it overlaps with “CODA” and that movie’s French predecessor (“La Famille Bélier”). In my humble opinion, “Beyond Silence” is a better film, a humanistic drama that will make you more aware of what you might overlook when interacting with deaf people.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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