There are few working filmmakers with whom you feel an electric encounter with the world that he or she is filming, an awe and fascination with what is before the camera and can be transmitted through it. One of these rare practitioners is Terrence Malick, who this year returned to the Cannes competition (The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or in 2011) with A Hidden Life, an adaptation of the real story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to join Hitler’s Wehrmacht, was arrested for this, and eventually executed. The film opens in the small mountain town of St. Radegund and astonishing visions of mountains embracing a verdant and idyllic landscape, home for the life, work, and love of Jägerstätter and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). This is an idealized, innocent utopia like the South Pacific islands in The Thin Red Line or pre-Columbus America in The New World, an exaltation of the balance between human world and the natural, anchored by a love swimming between person and person, person and land. Archive footage of Hitler, much of it pulled from Triumph of the Will, introduces the spark of human evil that, as in those films through war and colonists, will corrupt paradise.
While the setting may appear similar to other Malick films, the dilemma at the film’s heart is quite different, as it is about actively rejecting, both bodily and spiritually, taking part in this spread of evil. Jägerstätter, a fervent Catholic whose devout faith makes up a great deal of the film’s questioning monologues, makes the choice to turn away from fighting for the Germans and being complicit in the darkness spreading across the land. After the film's typically glorious introduction to paradise there is a period of gradual souring of the purity in St. Radegund as the town becomes converted to the German cause and starts ostracizing the Jägerstätters over the father’s nonconformity. Finally, there is Franz's arrest—and in this long section of a nearly three-hour movie, Jägerstätter is imprisoned and the movie transforms into one of the rare films of spiritual imprisonment, akin to Joan of Arc adaptations or the apostasy stories of the two versions of Silence. Jägerstätter is asked to renounce his anti-Hitler beliefs in order be released or at least reprieved, and he instead holds true. This is the section of the film that has most in common with Malick’s most abstract dramas, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, where narrative time and the trappings of the period setting both fall away and characters and figures pace around the frame, asking unanswered questions of each other and themselves. Juxtaposed with the lonely freedom of Fani back on the farm, holding her own in a strong feminine independence unusual for the filmmaker, A Hidden Life boldly dedicates a dominant part of itself to evoking imprisonment of space and of the soul. Only one year passes in prison, but in the film Malick renders this sequence without markers of time, an endless isolation and containment whose only succor is the light that pierces through prison windows and letters of love from home.
Malick has spent the last several films increasingly deconstructing conventional filmmaking and reenforcing his unique film language. As his productions have gotten more spare and in turn more abstract, he has also left behind the specificity of setting found in The Thin Red Line and The New World that, for many viewers, helped anchor or even excuse what many took to be directorial flourishes: The wandering camera, the poetic internal ruminations spoken in voice over, the seemingly random incursions into the drama of non-narrative characters or moments, and frequent cutaways to nature. But these are not quirks, they are building blocks, and in subsequent films Malick daringly broke down his cinema even more to its basic elements, barely staging what any would consider dramatic scenes in favor of two main kinds of human interaction: Two or more people running, touching, tumbling, fleeing, goofing, and otherwise finding joys in playfulness; and two or more people shuffling around in shyness, consternation, thoughtfulness, or confrontation. Rarely does anyone have a dialogue, and instead one character will talk to another in such a manner it almost feels like one is a figment of the imagination of the other, an external, expressionist utterance of a doubt or feeling inside. Barely has a scene begun, a conversation started, when Malick will cut to a new image, a new staging of the scene, and new lines, as if we’re seeing multiple fractured versions of the same singular expression, whether of joy or doubt. This lack of conventional dramaturgy is a technique, not a flaw. Whether it works for an audience wide or small is another question, but it most certainly is a coherent and, for me, frequently tremendous and moving approach not to storytelling but to the evocation of the spirit. Rarely does a filmmaker photograph the world, whether moments of delight between a family or of the sun breaking over a mountain, as if these are new images. Malick is always looking for new images; for him, a shot of the sun isn’t another shot of the sun, but rather it’s a sun never previously seen. In the film there is a moment of possible self-portraiture, of a church painter in St. Radegund who says that he “help[s] people look up from those pews and dream.” In A Hidden Life you constantly have the sensation that each image, however superfluous, is needed, perhaps desperately. You may disagree with that necessity, but how many films insist, are so sure that what they share is an essential revelation?
These films' attraction to what Werner Herzog, another photographer of revelations, would call ecstatic truth understandably wears down many people, especially since their doubled, tripled, quadrupled emphasis on similar motifs both inside and between the films frequently has a dulling effect that takes away from the majesty of the imagery rather than amplifying it. Nevertheless, A Hidden Life's Austrian setting, with its dramatically curving hillsides, stark mountain ranges, and Old World farmsteads, houses, and church, prove a revitalizing subject for Malick and his new cinematographer, Jörg Widmer, a long-time camera operator for Malick who replaces Emmanuel Lubezki with no noticeable drop in quality of natural light or invention of composition. Shooting with extremely wide lenses, the world spills around its characters, bending and bowing, rendered bracing and unusual. Immersion and wonder is the desire, and the fact that Malick is working on a VR piece makes a great deal of sense, since with that technology perhaps he can place the viewer even closer to glory.
In St. Radegund, Malick’s approach is nearly as fresh as it was in The New World, genuinely breathtaking at times and evoked through two touching, genuine embodiments by the actors. In prison, the film becomes as frustrated as its protagonist and far more trying an experience for the audience, yet it easily conjures for Franz and for us the absence of the outdoors, of freedom, of play, of fulfillment, and of lightness. Shot all the way back in the summer of 2016, during the American presidential campaigns and the increased popularity of Austria's far-right political party, the film’s central protest, which is in fact a very private one—Jägerstätter is constantly told no one will hear of his moral stance, that “no one will be changed” by his sacrifice—speaks with unusual direct address to this present moment. “This is what happens when the world dies, but men survive,” remarks St. Radegund’s Nazi-sympathizing mayor. Going to the bishop to protest her husband’s imprisonment, Fani is told of the Church's collaborative position: “let every man be subject to the power above them,” referring to the Third Reich. From this utterance, Malick cuts to a shot of monks carefully tending the church garden, and it is quite clear what power we should be exalting.