Things We Lost in the Fire: A Hidden Life and the Films of Terrence Malick
By Nick Pinkerton
A contextualization for the most recent film by one of America‘s most difficult to pin down auteurs.
After the British writer Dennis Potter learned that he was suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer, he decided to give a final address via the medium through which he‘d made his fame, shooting a legendary sit-down television interview with broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. Sipping a morphine and champagne cocktail to control his pain, Potter appeared a marvel of intellectual clarity and dark humor, describing how he had, in learning with certainty of the imminence of his death, a new knowledge of the richness of the moment: “That nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene… At this season, the blossom is out in full now... I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn‘t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous... The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.”
Potter’s words crossed my mind when watching A Hidden Life, the tenth feature film by the American director Terrence Malick, and his first shot entirely outside of the United States. In a way, they might apply to any one of Malick’s films, for Malick has always been preoccupied with seeing things anew, and communicating that sense of newness to a viewer. The title of his 2005 film The New World is significant; the film is set in Tidewater, Virginia, in the immediately post-Columbian period, yes, but the choice of this unspoiled scene is only one manifestation of Malick’s ongoing commitment to uncovering the qualities of newborn freshness that can be found in the most unlikely of places, the “all things shining” spoken of by Jim Caviezel’s mystic-minded Pvt. Witt amidst the hell in the Pacific wartime setting of The Thin Red Line (1998).
The picturesque invitations of certain Malick settings are obvious—it does not, perhaps, require genius to find beauty in the rolling fields of western Canada, as Malick does in Days of Heaven (1978), or in the Solomon Islands, paradisal even in wartime, in The Thin Red Line—but in recent, contemporary-set films exploring environments not as obviously awestriking, he has shown no less sense of discovery, no less commitment to conveying the nowness of everything. When he films a Sonic drive-in in To the Wonder (2012), it’s the Sonicest Sonic; when he travels to Las Vegas in Knight of Cups (2015), it’s the Las Vegasest Las Vegas. Which should not be taken to mean that Malick is a compulsive prettifier, an Instagram filter in search of an ethos. A searcher for beauty, Malick is also enormously wary of the deceptions and illusions at work in image-making. There is still an innocent astonishment at the miracle of the moving image apparatus in Days of Heaven, when a sidetracked circus group shows a print of Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917), the projector still a fairground novelty, but this is long since corrupted by the time of Knight of Cups, which visits the illusionist capital, Hollywood, and addresses itself to the manufacture of deceitful beauty. (Malick’s dervish-like deep-focus aesthetic has sometimes been criticized as over-ready for commercial co-option; here this criticism has become, obliquely, his subject.) One of the loveliest and most troubling scenes in The Tree of Life (2011) has a gaggle of boys running through the clouds trailed by a spray truck travelling the streets of suburban Waco, filling the air with DDT, a chemical later banned for its deleterious environmental effects. What is beautiful can also be deadly. An awareness of the insufficiencies and deceits of the image is deeply impressed upon A Hidden Life, in which we find a painter of religious subjects confronting his inability to do justice to Christ’s suffering, (“How can I show what I haven’t lived?”). Elsewhere, there is an echo of the communal film screening from Days of Heaven, but its tenor is radically altered: the audience members are soldiers, the images are German propaganda documenting the Reich on its blitzkrieg advance.
When he films a Sonic drive-in in To the Wonder, it’s the Sonicest Sonic; when he travels to Las Vegas in Knight of Cups, it’s the Las Vegasest Las Vegas.
A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic peasant in the Alpine village of St. Radegund who sought his small way to slow that advance. After vocally protesting the German Anschluss that annexed Austria, and refusing to take the Hitler oath upon his conscription into the German Wehrmacht, he was sentenced to death by a military tribunal, deported to Brandenburg-Görden Prison and, on the morning of August 9th, 1943, at age 36, executed by guillotine, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, his wife, Franziska, informally “Fani,” by Valerie Pachner; when Franz is hauled off to prison, she’ll remain in St. Radegund to face the growing wrath of a radicalized community, spurred on by the village Mayor, a perfect specimen of petty dictator as played by Jürgen Prochnow. “Show a little humor!” he tells Franz early on, aggressively avuncular, and the film documents how, incrementally, what starts as petty provocation can end in death camps.
When Malick returned to filmmaking with The Thin Red Line (1998) after a 20-year absence, he was received in many circles as a New Hollywood Messiah returned to redeem a fallen world. Later, with an increase in productivity, he has become a contentious figure, his films following The Tree of Life becoming increasingly improvisatory and, to some eyes, shaggily ambling. These are works to a large degree discovered in the process of shooting and editing—a path that Malick had in fact already begun at the time of Days of Heaven, which located its form only when its writer-director had the late-in-the-process inspiration of letting young star Linda Manz operate as its narrator, effectively reconfiguring the film around a child’s-eye perspective.
Without relitigating the arguments over much of Malick’s 2010’s output, the merits of which I’ve spent the better part of the decade polemicizing for, it may be said that A Hidden Life is indeed tethered to a more traditional narrative throughline than, say, Knight of Cups or Song to Song (2017), films committed to finding a cinematic form to the deliquescent flow of affection, to track how traces of former relationships re-emerge in later loves, these subterranean movements of affection that comprise, to borrow the phrase from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that is both title and epigraph of Malick’s latest film, our hidden lives. Regard with suspicion any reference to a “return to form” for Malick in 2019—call it instead a return to subject matter readily comprehensible as important: the rise and reign of fascism in Mitteleuropa in the middle of the last century.
A Hidden Life can be adjudged as “relevant,” as opposed to those recent films that dealt merely with such minor matters as feelings—though in fact there has been little real change, for Malick is here interested in an intimate, emotional, individual understanding of human beings swept up in world-historical events. Nevertheless, Malick is in his latest at least somewhat restrained by a fidelity to the events of Jägerstätter’s attenuated terrestrial existence, which impose a tragic narrative arc: a prelapsarian existence in the village, the sky darkening with the new regime’s incoming warplanes, the adoption of a principled stance, then the official condemnation, the coming-to-terms, and the final letting go. Even so, rumors of the mystic-minded author of the epic Voyage of Time (2016) scampering back to tidy, traditional narrative filmmaking have been greatly exaggerated. It is difficult in the extreme to recognize the finished film from Malick’s script, dated July 6, 2016—a 103-page script for a nearly three-hour movie—save perhaps in the quote from Kierkegaard that opens it: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies, and his rule begins.”
Why focus on the Christian conscientious objector, a rarity and an outlier, after all, rather than the hundreds upon thousands upon millions of Jews, gypsies, Communists, and homosexuals who filled Hitler’s extermination camps? There are several possible answers to this question. Firstly, such Catholic conscientious objectors did exist. Jägerstätter was inspired by the example of priest Franz Reinisch, executed in 1942, and Otto Preminger, an Austrian Jew, thought enough of the church to include a scene of principled resistance to the Nazis in his The Cardinal (1963). To understand the brute nature of fascism, it is illuminating to see how the state deals with those admitted as members to the designated master race when they refuse to go along with the policy of “My country, right or wrong”—the Nazi motto emblazoned on the gatehouse of the Buchenwald concentration camp. I suspect what drew Malick to Jägerstätter, however, was the element of choice in his fate, the fact that this man, who was born to the peasant and lumpenprole class that made up much of Hitler’s support base, who would have had at least a fighting chance in the ranks of the Wehrmacht, elected to accept instead death on the chopping block. (If we are, furthermore, to take A Hidden Life as Malick’s response to the contemporary renascence of fascism, I would suspect his position mirrors that of T.S. Eliot in Christianity and Culture: a conviction that there must be a spiritual element to any vigorous resistance, and that a lukewarm ethos like liberal democracy cannot do the job alone.)
Malick’s film follows Jägerstätter to Enns Military Base, where he participates in basic training before being sent home after the surrender of France; to the local bishopric, where he registers his misgivings to deaf ears; and through a succession of miserable confinements preceding his final destination. The film’s central location—its homeland, its true north, a refrain we return to even after Jägerstätter’s imprisonment has begun—is St. Radegund. There is an echo here of the nurtured homefront fantasies that Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) has of the sweetheart back stateside (Miranda Otto) in The Thin Red Line, but the scenes with Fani lack the gauzy idealization of the earlier film. This is Franziska carrying on by herself, not a memory grown soft-edged from cherished visitations. Shunned by her neighbors, we find her gathering firewood in winter snow, burning bad wheat, sowing fields, digging tubers from the damp soil.
Shot by Jörg Widmer, a longtime camera operator for Malick, here in the DP role for the director for the first time, these scenes of the life of an operating farm in rural Austria in the 1940s, largely unchanged from what it would have been a century before, are tactile, loamy, even sensual. Work, which has all but disappeared from the considerations of most American filmmakers, is the very tissue of A Hidden Life, which opens on a scene of Franz and Fani scything the overgrown grass on a hillside in sight of the church, a distant beacon, to recall the Mont St. Michel of To the Wonder or the farmer’s house in Days of Heaven. Beginning with that film, Malick gives us a sense of Tolstoyan exaltation when dealing with agrarian labor, an ecstasy nowhere to be found in his dealings with the industrialized environment. His recent producer credits give a good idea of where his sympathies lie; they include Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell’s 2016 Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, the Kentuckian poet, farmer, and essayist, a loud proselytizer for agrarian values and traditional farming techniques, in opposition to the invasive industrial approach, and an announced film based on the diaries of Henry David Thoreau.
Disobedience, civil and otherwise, runs a profound course through Malick’s cinema. Before retreating to the countryside, Days of Heaven opens on a stygian scene at a Chicago ironworks, where stoker Richard Gere storms violently off of the job—a scene exactly presaged in the 1974 Jack Starrett-directed action-comedy The Gravy Train, co-written by Malick under the alias David Whitney, in which Stacy Keach throws in the towel at a bean-canning factory before inducing brother Frederic Forrest to walk out of the West Virginia coal mines and take up a life of crime. And the cost of carnivorous capitalism and life on the assembly line is not merely spiritual—in To the Wonder, Ben Affleck investigates industrial pollution in the groundwater near Oklahoma oil refineries. As to Malick’s perspective on the white-collar, corporate world, the scenes in The Tree of Life of Sean Penn wandering through a glass-and-steel urban wasteland stitched together in the downtowns of Dallas and Houston should say quite enough.
The polarity of City and Country living in Malick’s work is but one of the connections between the Texas Prometheus and F.W. Murnau, the German master of the moving camera whose 1926 arrival in Hollywood presaged a revolution in visual storytelling—not only is there the touchstone of Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927), but Days of Heaven owes much to the harvesting scenes in City Girl (1930), as does Malick’s body of work as a whole to Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s savage innocence in Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). Describing Murnau’s approach in the mid-1920s, Film Daily editor Maurice Kann wrote that the director “would have the camera free as air”—and though Malick is decidedly earthbound, he has become more and more through the years a fervent believer in the potentialities of the liberated frame, in the continuation of the Murnau tradition. Beginning his career as a screenwriter specializing in gnarly hillbilly colloquialisms, Malick soon moved towards a stripped-down approach to dialogue spoken on-screen, an approach that registers as elemental to some listeners, simplistic-to-the-point-of-cliché to others. In A Hidden Life the crucial exchanges are in English, while the incidental chatter is in German and other European tongues, unsubtitled, and for the primarily English-speaking viewer this registers like the difference between intertitles and untitled small talk in a silent.
Much that is essential here is not spoken in dialogues. In A Hidden Life, Malick remains, alongside Wong Kar-wai, unparalleled in both his harmonious and contrapuntal combinations of voiceover and image. The film has the form of a deathwatch, its terminus preordained by events, and for much of its runtime, Fritz is in confinement. In shackles, his mind wanders the hills and mountains of St. Radegund, and the thoughts formed in isolation are given voice in the form of Jägerstätter’s letters from prison and Fani’s replies from the bustling homestead. In time, the dilemmas that vex Franz in the earlier part of the film—Does a family man have the right to become a martyr? Can a Christian sacrifice the life given him by God?—give way to his serene certitude of his fate. While we see Franz in a gray prison, what we hear in voiceover indicates a consciousness free as air: “When you give up the idea of survival at any price, a new light floods in.”
We are quite near here to the same sense of vivid nowness described by Potter. In approaching Jägerstätter’s story, Malick faced the same question that his religious painter struggles with: how can he show suffering that he hasn’t lived? The answer is that he cannot, not wholly, not beyond the threshold of the charnel house. Jägerstätter’s choice was his own, his hidden death his private property. But Malick can, in describing with such tender detail the thrum of life at St. Radegund, the abundance hidden in every homely gesture, convey something of the enormity of that which Jägerstätter left behind. This doesn’t alter history, but to us, the living, it is a gift. •