A recent BBC list of the “100 Greatest Films Directed by Women” placed Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will at number forty-five. Sandwiched between a vampire Western and an American road movie, it struck many as a deeply immoral choice. Scored with appropriately Völkisch music from Wagner, Triumph of the Will documents the Nazi Party Congress of 1934, a massive event attended by over 700,000 fascists on the Nuremberg rally grounds. Whatever its merits as a piece of filmmaking, it is unmistakably a work of propaganda.
The Nazi vision, as expressed by Riefenstahl, is fundamentally monumental—all vast landscapes, blocks of soldiers, titanic slabs of stone. Riefenstahl even had a hand in planning the Congress’s mise en scene, designing the rally, as Susan Sontag noted, for maximum propaganda-film potential. The film elevates the event’s authoritarian grandeur by cutting out everything quotidian. We see no action, no gesture, that does not contribute to the Volksgemeinschaft. Humanity becomes a kind of flawless geometry, with no place for the trivial or the mundane.
Terrence Malick opens A Hidden Life, his dramatization of the life and death of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, with an extended quotation from Riefenstahl, segueing from her torchlit processions and grand columns to the sweaty and the banal work that goes into making a world. Through a series of wide shots, handheld close-ups, and quick flashes of montage, we are let into the lives of Franz, his wife, Franziska, and their family, who live in the Arcadian village of Sankt Radegund—“our nest up in the trees,” as Franz describes it in voiceover. We watch as the grass is mowed, the wheat harvested, the donkey fed and the sheep sheared. Children grow, church bells are rung, games are played, seasons pass in great beauty. Nothing of great importance, it seems, happens in St. Radegund.
This will not surprise anyone familiar with Malick’s work. He has spent nearly his entire career—particularly since 1978’s Days of Heaven—juxtaposing the intimate and the small with the grand and inconceivable, from the natural cycles of Thin Red Line to the birth and death of the universe in Tree of Life. His new film attains a similar monumentality, particularly with its grand Tyrolean scenery and astounding natural-light photography by Jörg Widmer.
But A Hidden Life’s greatest moments come from its focus on the insignificant: the brushing of two hands, the opening of a door, the way a child steps through the rain. This gives the film a decidedly non-polemical atmosphere, which, in view of what comes next, should be counted as one of its most remarkable qualities. Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) is called up first for training, and then, in 1943, for active duty in the Wehrmacht, a position that requires him to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. He refuses, and so is imprisoned and, finally, executed. This last period of his life inspires some of Malick’s most visceral filmmaking, particularly the scenes of beatings in Jägerstätter’s cramped Berlin-Tegel Prison cell.