Terrence Malick Deepens the Riddle

‘A Hidden Life’
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight (Photo: Reiner Bajo)

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.

 

Luminous, brimming with an elusive and poignant ecstasy, the film leans heavily on image and mood, while shrinking dialogue to a minimum.

At a full three hours, A Hidden Life is arguably too long; you could lop off a half-hour and it wouldn’t suffer much. But tedium is less a quality of the film itself than a theme of the lives it depicts. Malick offers a documentary-like foregrounding of the burdens of daily village existence. Life in St. Radegund consists of endless labor. Scything, sowing, harvesting; milking cows and feeding hogs; making clothes on a loom; carting grain to the mill; baking bread: it never ceases, and at times exhaustion verges on despair, as when Franziska and her sister struggle, with an ancient enfeebled cow, to plow a muddy field. If you find yourself intermittently surprised to recall that this is the mid-twentieth century, that’s because the depiction of rural life, run semi-communally and governed by nature and seasonality, places us amid timeless rhythms and routines.

To these laborious realities Malick adds a grace of family joy; Franz and Franziska interrupt their haying to toss straw at each other playfully or join their three little girls in a fond frolic. But their family’s fate follows a downward arc, as the reality of war impinges on St. Radegund and the men of the village dutifully submit to conscription. Malick depicts this dutifulness as less a matter of Nazi conviction than anxious conformity (the burgermeister, for instance, worries about his reputation). But conformity has its dreary force, and as Jägerstätter makes clear his intention to be a Verweigerer—a refusenik—his fellow villagers subject him and his family to shunning and scorn. Jägerstätter remains resolute. “We’re killing innocent people,” he insists. “We’re preying on the weak.” 

A few villagers quietly commiserate, but advise Jägerstätter to drop his resistance. How can he, one man, hope to make any difference? Nor does the church provide a moral or ethical foothold. The village priest, while sympathetic, warns of the consequences for Jägerstätter’s family. “Your sacrifice would benefit no one,” he says. An appointment with the bishop proves more disappointing still. “If our leaders are evil, what does one do?” Jägerstätter earnestly beseeches the man—only to be answered with a citation of Romans on the necessity of submitting to the authorities. “You have a duty to the Fatherland,” the bishop intones. “The Church tells us so.” Jägerstätter, reporting the conversation to his wife afterward, surmises that the bishop “probably was afraid that I am a spy.” What other explanation could there be for why an exalted man of the church would not recommend Christ’s love as moral guidance? Meanwhile, Fascist moral and ethical perversity is everywhere. “Conscience makes a man cowardly,” one Nazi interrogator lectures Jägerstätter; “the anti-Christ confuses you, and turns your virtue into weakness.”

The last third of the film relies on letters between Franz and Franziska—read in voice-overs that reverberate with tender poignancy—to chronicle Franz’s months in prison, where he is subjected to casual sadism by guards while being repeatedly offered the chance to have his sentence reversed, if he will simply take the Hitler oath. He refuses, and remains largely silent about why. The silence seems to reflect decisions he himself can’t entirely explain. “I have this feeling,” he tells a sympathetic Nazi officer who presides over his trial, and who wants to let him off. “If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do—and what we fail to do. I cannot do what I believe is wrong.” 

The drama around Jägerstätter raises the vexing question faced by generations of postwar Germans: How did a whole nation go so terribly astray? And how broadly culpable, how complicit in evil, was Jedermann, the German Everyman? Over the decades, an exculpatory set of arguments has held, somewhat contradictorily, that: 1) people acquiesced out of fear for their lives; 2) the overwhelming majority of Germans had no idea of the scope of Nazi atrocity; 3) in a society led astray by evil leaders it is the leaders who are to blame, and not the followers; and 4) Nazi evil effectively became normalized, and thus the paucity of German resistors and the huge preponderance of Mitgeher—literally, those who go along.

And yet, as any visitor to Berlin’s remarkable German Resistance Memorial Center (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand) will learn, there was a resistance, led in piecemeal fashion by scores of Germans—clergymen, writers, officers, left-leaning politicians and intellectuals, young students, and common citizens—many of whom, like Franz Jägerstätter, paid with their lives. Ineffectual at the time, the resistance has had an important legacy; its witness and the courageous sacrifices it entailed have proved crucial to establishing a kind of ex post facto moral compass, reminding Germans—rather in the way that the witness of passionate nineteenth-century abolitionists reminds Americans regarding slavery—that a point of moral sanity was in fact visible to some, and thus available to all.

 

Malick has explored war’s horrors before, in The Thin Red Line (1998), his most acclaimed film. A single battlefield assault takes up at least half of that film, with soldier voiceovers creating a polyphony of dread and pain. Where The Thin Red Line sought to convey the confusion of war, A Hidden Life is all about clarity—specifically, the moral clarity informing Jägerstätter’s decision to renounce his life, and all he loves, in order not to be complicit in Nazi evil.

Where does this resoluteness come from? What exactly is that “feeling” Jägerstätter  struggles to describe? And why is it given to him, and no one else around him? Writing in the New York Times, A.O. Scott criticizes Malick’s treatment of Jägerstätter’s goodness, calling it “a quality the movie sometimes reduces to—or expresses in terms of—his good looks.” In Scott’s view, the performances of August Diehl and Valerie Pachner, as Franz and Franziska, “amount mainly to a series of radiant poses and anguished faces,” and reveal the limitation of what he calls “this earnest, gorgeous, at times frustrating film.”

The comment echoes a recurring criticism of Malick’s moviemaking, having to do with what film scholar Lloyd Michaels terms the director’s “extremities of beauty.” Writing about 1978’s Days of Heaven (though the comment applies to all Malick’s movies), Michaels asks “whether the exquisite lighting, painterly compositions, dreamy dissolves, and fluid camera movements, combined with the epic grandeur and elegiac tone, sufficiently compensate for the thinness of the tale, the two-dimensionality of the characters, and the resulting emotional detachment of the audience.”

It’s a useful question. To recur to Scott’s comment about radiant poses and anguished faces, it’s worth recalling that beatific closeups in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, imprinted the radiant pose—and anguished face—of Maria Falconetti indelibly on the collective cinematic consciousness. But her character was presented as an ethereal being, all but entranced by spiritual rapture. In comparison, Jägerstätter seems like just another Jedermann. How is it that one Jedermann apprehends evil, and not the next? As told by Malick, Jägerstätter’s story doesn’t solve this moral riddle, but in fact only deepens it.

Is that a problem? In The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke investigated the question, What kind of childhood created Nazis? His answer hewed to a psycho-historical interpretation linking Nazi murderousness to the cruelty of an upbringing within a rigidly patriarchal society. Malick’s own portrayal of rural village life might be said to pose the opposite question: What creates a martyr? Here the answer, perhaps necessarily, is more mysterious. Has Malick committed a sentimental simplification, or a moving tribute to the making of a saint? While A Hidden Life offers us the poetry of sainthood, some viewers might want more of the politics and psychology of it.

Malick isn’t interested. Luminous, brimming with an elusive and poignant ecstasy, his film leans heavily on image and mood, while shrinking dialogue to a minimum—as if to mirror the reality of things, like faith itself, that in basic ways can’t be articulated as much as experienced. The film speaks stirringly on behalf of sacrifice, and is itself a vindication. “Do you think your defiance will change the course of things?” a prison interrogator taunts Jägerstätter. “No one will ever know what happens to you in here.”

Published in the February 2020 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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