Before “CODA” (2021) and its 2014 French original version, there was the 1996 German film “Beyond Silence”, an extraordinary drama about a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) girl who tries to live her own life while growing up on that thin invisible line between hearing and deafness. Although mainly focusing on her growing yearning and aspiration, the movie also shows considerable empathy and understanding on her deaf parents who have depended on her for years, and the result is alternatively amusing and touching thanks to those 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. 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), and 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 one talking to him, not her (Here is a valuable lesson for us: 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 is understandably embarrassed when her mother unexpectedly comes to the school, but she still loves her parents a lot 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, and there is 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 old personal pain when he and his family come 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, his 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 quite isolated and frustrated as 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 displeased and concerned in contrast to Kai, who has already made peace with the fact that their dear daughter will be more separated from them year by year. Although her little second daughter turns out to be able to hear just like Lara, Kai remains as warm and cheerful as before, and she also even tries to learn how to ride a bike despite her physical disadvantage associated with congenital deafness.
Meanwhile, Lara keeps honing her musical talent with a clarinet given by Clarissa. Besides having her aunt’s sincere blessing and support, she also has a school music teacher willing to teach and guide her a lot, and she eventually comes to have her first big public moment in front of many parents of her school students, though she cannot help but notice two glaring vacant seats where her parents are supposed to be. Her father still distances himself from her passion toward music, and he remains same as before even when she grows up to be a teenager eager to see get more of whatever life is going to give her.
Inevitably, this leads to a conflict hovering over the second half of the film. 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, who is 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 at all. Although he does not stop his daughter, he feels angry and hurt again, and the gap between him and his daughter has become more widened despite their lifelong affection between them.
Anyway, the movie subsequently switches onto a more cheerful mode as Lara comes to Berlin and then enjoys many exciting things in the city. While she becomes more aware of the ongoing estrangement between Clarissa and her husband, that is the last thing for her to worry about for now, 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 come across her first opportunity of romance when she is going around here and there in the city. At a local marketplace, she spots a little girl and some handsome lad having a brief conversation via sign language, and she instantly gets interested in what they are talking and doing now, but then she is surprised to discover that 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, and Lara becomes more serious this lad even though he will soon leave for US for his study.
Leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the screenplay by director Caroline Link, who has been 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 remained unresolved among Lara and her family members, and we are indirectly reminded that the gap between Lara and her father will be still there no matter how much they will try. Sure, they do love and care about each other as before despite their conflict throughout the story, but Martin will never fully sense and understand his daughter’s musical passion and talent as before, and this hard truth is not changed at all even after he touchingly attempts to understand her more as her father.
The movie is carried well by two excellent performances at its center. In what may be one of the most memorable child performances during last several decades, Tatjana Trieb effortlessly occupies her every scene in the film without looking too cute or precocious at all, and she is especially wonderful in the scene where Lara shows her willy 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, and Lara is no exception.
As older Lara, Testud, a notable French actress who was around the beginning of her acting career when she was cast for the film, 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 between them is flawless on the whole, and, though her speaking voice in the film is actually a dubbed one, Testud is quite convincing nonetheless in her character’s steady emotional growth along the story. I must point out that her character’s brief romance in the film feels like a perfunctory subplot, but Testud shines with genuine vivaciousness during this part, and she 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 come to us a husband and a wife who have known each other for a long time, and their casting is just one of several thoughtfully inclusive aspects of the film, which incidentally included the subtitle for deaf audiences when it was released in theaters. In case of Sibylle Canonica and Matthias Habich, who plays Clarissa’s weary husband, both of them are believable with their colorful characters’ respective human flaws, and 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 besides being a powerful mix of family drama and coming-of-age tale, and it surely deserves more attention considering how much it overlaps with “CODA” and that movie’s French predecessor in many aspects. In my humble opinion, “Beyond Silence” is a better film besides being the first in line, but I am sure that they will make a fairly interesting triple feature show, and they all certainly will make you more aware of what we usually overlook whenever interacting with deaf people.