Is there a contemporary director who can match Terrence Malick for enigmatic genius? A summa cum laude philosophy major at Harvard, then a Rhodes Scholar, Malick was a philosophy professor at MIT before changing course and enrolling in film school. His long career—the filmmaker is seventy-six—has featured a sparse filmography, an abiding unconcern for critical or popular acclaim, and a mid-career hiatus, during which he disappeared from public life while reportedly laboring on a masterwork, to be called Q, exploring the origins of life on earth from the Big Bang onward. His first, short film, the twelve-minute Lanton Mills (1969), is essentially kept under lock-and-key at his behest by the AFI Conservatory, his alma mater, and only available for scholars to see. Malick is the Thomas Pynchon or J. D. Salinger of directors, and the dreamily elliptical quality of his movies has only added to the luster.
In his academic years Malick was a translator of Heidegger—and the links to German Romanticism, Nazism, and Heimat that have complicated the philosopher’s legacy could be said to form the deep background of A Hidden Life. Malick’s new film takes up the real-life story of Franz Jägerstätter, a farmer from the mountain village of St. Radegund in Austria, on the German border, who declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II, refused to take the soldier’s oath of induction—a pledge of loyalty to Führer and Vaterland—and was sentenced to death for the crime of Wehrkraftzersetzung, or “undermining military morale.” Executed in 1943, Jägerstätter was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007; Malick covers the period between the onset of war and Jägerstätter’s execution, charting the process of a quiet man’s ethical awakening and his ostracism within his close-knit community.
Somber and rapturous, yet imbued with a flinty sense of human cruelty, A Hidden Life is lavish and spare in equal measure. A useful cinematic comparison is Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), which explored the stifling conformity and deeply authoritarian cast of village life among German-speaking peoples at the onset of the last century. In a sense, Malick has produced Haneke’s film inside-out, with a large and crucial dimension of joy. Where Haneke shot White Ribbon in a severely minimalist black and white, conveying a sense of enclosure and focusing clinical attention on family pathologies, Malick uses rich colors and panoramic camera angles to evoke a kind of visual ecstasy emanating from the mountains. Indeed, the gorgeous surroundings play a role as important as the humans who live among them. At times I found myself expecting to see Julie Andrews pop over the hillside and burst into song.
Malick is enough of a film historian to know the ambiguous valence such images of alpine ecstasy hold in German iconography. In the silent-film era, the cult of high snowy peaks inspired a genre of “mountain films,” many starring the Austrian alpinist Luis Trenker, including such works as 1924’s Berg des Schicksals (Mountain of Destiny), or The Holy Mountain (1926)—which marked the debut of a young actress named Leni Riefenstahl. In retrospect the mountain-film genre is often seen as a cinematic harbinger of Nazi mythicism regarding heroism, whiteness, nature, and godly power.
In other words, the same images that convey both beauty and safety to the residents of St. Radegund, protected by their fortress-like mountains (“It seemed no trouble could reach our valley,” Jägerstätter’s wife, Franziska, says in voiceover; “we lived above the clouds”) also portend the dark mythic energies that are about to overwhelm them. This tie-in is made explicit in the opening scenes of the film, which borrow the famed intro takes from Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, showing the view from Hitler’s plane, descending through mist-flecked mountaintops, as he heads for the 1936 Nazi rally in Nuremburg. Later, Malick deploys footage of Hitler enthusiastically greeting guests on the viewing deck outside his beloved private home, Berghof, in the mountains of Bavaria. And in one chilling moment we watch the sunset over the mountains above St. Radegund, its perfect quiet marred by the faint cry of one of Hitler’s shrieking speeches. Malick’s visual mountain poetry, delivered through the lens of cinematographer Jörg Widmer, carries a dreadful ambivalence. Its serenity is haunted by chaos and evil.