By Ali Moosavi.
My relationship with Terence Malick films has been love and hate. Watching Badlands (1973) back in the 70s was like a breath of fresh air; a film that, for me, has aged extremely well. Then the experience of watching a 70mm version of Days of Heaven (1978) in the cinemas was an unforgettable experience. For me, Malick was this enigmatic genius who made films only once in a few years, waiting for the right project and investing a lot of time in it to ensure that his vision was captured on celluloid. I also loved The Thin Red Line (1998) and A New World (2005). The Tree of Life ( 2011) changed everything for me. It was his fifth feature film in 38 years. For me, this was a different Terence Malick that I could not relate to. I was obviously in a minority as the film was lauded by most critics and won many awards, including the Palm d’Or in Cannes. Malick went from the reclusive filmmaker who would only venture into filmmaking once every few years to a filmmaking machine, turning out films year after year. And I could not connect with any of them.
His latest, A Hidden Life, his fifth feature in the eight years since The Tree of Life, was screened in the main competition section in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is a three-hour redundant treatise on subjects such as religion, conscience, morality, love, war, and sacrifice. It is based on the true story of an Austrian consciousness objector during the Second World War.
Malick opens his films with a few shots from Lefi Reisenthal’s Triumph of the Will. Throughout the film home movie-type footage of Adolph Hitler is shown. We are told that during WWII, every Austrian eligible for military service was required to swear allegiance to The Third Reich. Franz (August Diehl), a peasant farmer with a young family, refuses to do so and suffers the consequences. To show the gravity of this choice, Malick keeps intercutting between the beautiful, luscious green Austrian hills and the bleak, cold cells that Franz is kept in, between the loving arms of his wife and the joy of being with his young children, to the tortures and degrading treatment that he suffers in hands of the Nazis. In fact, Malick builds such a strong argument for Franz to sign a piece of paper, swearing allegiance to Hitler, that it becomes increasingly difficult to accept his refusal. Of course we have the benefit of historical knowledge and know what went on in concentration camps and other crimes committed by Nazis, but Franz would not have been likely to have known any of this.
His priest tells him that to God what is important is what you feel in your heart and not what you declare on a piece of paper. Franz is seen as a traitor by all the other farmers. His wife and children are treated as pariahs in their closed knit community. Without Franz, they would find it hard to make ends meet. Yet, Franz remains steadfast in his refusal. His moral and religious beliefs supersedes those of everyone around him, including the priests. The role of Franz has very little dialogue in it. Instead his feelings and inner thoughts are conveyed to us by a continuous narration. While all others, especially his wife, put so much emotion into their pleads to him, Franz remains largely silent and passive. We have to judge the passionate, emotive pleas against the cold, lifeless spoken narration. The fact that this goes on for almost three hours does not add any more gravitas or sympathy to Franz’s position.
To be fair to Malick, the task he has given himself, in making us understand and sympathise with Franz’s position, is extremely difficult. A not too dissimilar theme was tackled rather more successfully by Martin Scorsese in Silence (2016). The futility and absurdity of war and lack of morality was unforgettably covered by Kubrick in Paths of Glory (1957), a filmmaker clearly influential to Malick. For me, he has used considerable screen time without adding anything new of significance to the theme of duty to God versus duty to one’s family, which has been covered throughout the history of cinema.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).