Is It the Death of Light?

Author: Jean-Pierre Sonnet, SJ

Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter  sentenced to death and executed by the Nazis

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019, it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the François-Chalais Prize. Terrence Malick’s most recent film, A Hidden Life, reveals the power of cinema to become an epiphany — to shed light on the subject of light. If this work represents the director’s return to a more linear narrative (after his experimental period from 2011 to 2017), it also extends, in a radical manner, the art underlying all Malick’s films, from Badlands (1973) to Song to Song (2017), through his masterpieces The Thin Red Line (1998) and The Tree of Life (2011). A Hidden Life is without a doubt Malick’s most spiritual film: “It’s a movie you enter”, wrote Owen Gleiberman, “like a cathedral of the senses”,1 and in it you hear a man’s prayer.

A hidden life

This man is Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), an Austrian conscientious objector who was executed by the Nazis at the age of 36. In the plebiscite of 10 April 1938, Jägerstätter was the only person to vote against the Anschluss in his village of St Radegund, in Upper Austria, on the German border. He was a young peasant who did not belong to any political organization; in essence he was the husband of Franziska Schwaninger (1913-2013), a woman of deep faith, who led him to read the Bible and the lives of saints. When conscription began in 1940, Jägerstätter refused to swear allegiance to the Führer; however, the exemption given to farmers allowed him to return home. His determination to be a conscientious objector grew stronger following his first experience of the army, but also in response to the growing persecution of the Church and to the campaign by the Nazi regime for the extermination of physically and mentally disabled adults. A meeting with the Bishop of Linz proved inconclusive, leaving him saddened by the churchman’s inability to confront radical questions. Jägerstätter was finally called to active duty in February 1943 — he was by then the father of three little girls, the oldest of whom was six. He at once declared his conscientious objection. He was imprisoned first in Linz and then in Berlin-Tegel and was court-martialled on 6 July 1943; sentenced to death for impeding the war effort, he was guillotined on 9 August 1943 in the Brandenberg prison — the same prison where almost 10,000 mentally disabled people and those suffering from other illnesses were gassed as part of the Aktion T4 euthanasia programme. It was not until 20 years after the war that Franz Jägerstätter name resurfaced in public memory, thanks to the writings of sociologist Gordon Zahn and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, both of whom were pacifists. In June 2007 Jägerstätter was recognized as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI and was beatified at the Cathedral of Linz on 26 October 2007, Austrian National Day.

‘A form of narration that can only be filmed’

Inspired by such a man, Terrence Malick has produced a film of powerful interiority, dominated by its two protagonists, Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska or Fani (Valerie Pachner). This historiographical work — the film is punctuated by a series of dates appearing on the screen — is thoroughly narrative and thus brings into play the elements of storytelling. Each day the postman passes by on his bicycle, stirring suspense: is he bringing the young farmer’s draft notice? Will the silhouettes of the approaching villagers join the chorus of those seeking to teach the village “traitor” a lesson? Yet the film’s relatively linear structure does not cramp Malick’s style in the least; British film-maker Christopher Nolan has said that Malick is capable of achieving like few others “a vital relationship between the image and the story it’s telling”. Malick’s real power, writes Juliette Goudot, “is having invented a new cinematic language based on the innovative cross-cutting with Steadicams (allowing for those famous human-height tracking shots) and voices-overs”. In A Hidden Life, thanks to the Steadicam’s portable shooting system, the images constantly embrace the characters, enabling us to perceive the physical intensity of the drama, in the man, soon to be doomed to blows and the promise of death, in the couple’s pangs of love, and in their three children, filmed again, and again in their parents’ arms.

As for the voice-overs, they slip into the world and action of the film, revealing its deepest drives. Whether interior soliloquies or the echoes of words spoken or letters read, they make possible what Michel Chion has called “a decentred narration”. Never before have voice-overs had such an impact on Malick’s work, for A Hidden Life is entirely a conscience drama. Even the inner monologues of third parties arc audible, and one imagines that they also resonate in the protagonist’s consciousness; this consciousness is then projected on to the spectator, who benefits from the symphony of all these voices. The film’s protagonist is paradoxically a man who is mostly silent — and remarkably so during the days of his imprisonment and trial. Like the suffering servant in the Book of Isaiah, writes Joel Mayward, “Franz doesn’t speak; he is led like a lamb to the slaughter, silent like a sheep before its shearers” (Is 53:7).2 When we hear his inner voice it identifies with that of the psalms and especially of Psalm 23(22] - “The Lord is my shepherd” — against the background of the shouting of Nazi soldiers. Here, as in his other films, Malick is the director who rehabilitates the ultimate human right, the right to prayer.

The human height tracking shots and the voice-overs are accompanied, in typical Malick fashion, by panning shots that move over the natural world — that of high pastures and mountains. Nature is always the other protagonist for Malick, as present as all the other characters together. “There are no battlefields” in this wartime film, writes Peter Debruge, “only fields of wheat”3 — or hayfields patiently scythed. As in that other war film The Thin Red Line, set on the island of Guadalcanal, on the other side of the world from Austria, the tall grasses undulating in the breeze are a caress, soothing the cruel history of human-kind. If nature can reflect the storms and dark days of history, it can also, with the return or spring, sustain hope — as Fani writes to her husband in prison. Here Malick’s vision mir­rors God’s reply to Job (Job 38-41), in which the natural world bears witness to a transcend­ent design that embraces our every drama.4

‘I am free’

The tragedy of the protagonist of Malick’s film, writes Peter Debruge, is particularly “defined not by his actions but by his choices — and more specifically by what he doesn’t do”.5 Setting himself apart from the people around him, he decides not to join the cult of “the onward force”. And this in spite of his parish priest who warns him of the risk he is running for himself and his family, and in spite of his bishop who reminds him that he, like everyone else, has a duty to the father­land. He replies: “If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do, or what we fail to do”. A young man’s freedom is the re­ward for onerous struggle, but it is always already there. To the lawyer who whispers to him that he should recant — “If you sign they’ll set you free” — he answers, “But I am free”. “Do you think you can change the course of the war by your behaviour?”, asks the judge at the court-martial (Bruno Ganz, in his last screen appearance), moments before the final verdict. The silence of the accused makes him ask, like another Pontius Pilate, “Do you judge me?”. “No”, replies Franz, “I simply cannot do what I believe is wrong and unjust”.

Paradoxically, the secret freedom the young man experiences within himself is also, through and through, lived in dialogue. A Hidden Life is the story of Fani as much as it is the story of Franz. The couple’s exchanges continue right up to the end, by interposed letters. Fani is, to use the biblical expression, “a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18), in a realism both responsible and painfully touching. “I love you whatever you decide, whatever hap­pens. I’m with you,” she murmurs to him when she manages to visit him in prison. The intensity of the film lies in the alternation between her life, ever more difficult in the face of the village’s hostility, and his life, prey to abuse by his guards. The distance between them is bridged by the words they exchange — in voice-overs, played out in alternating scenes: they hold on to one another, for one another, even daring to make gestures of solid­arity with others who are in need of immediate help. On the farm, the donkey is there with its obedient gentleness, a Christ-like image of the imprisoned man.

The cinema as epiphany

One phrase recurs throughout the film, spoken by the bishop, by the lawyer and by the army judge: “Do you believe you can alter the course of events? Nothing that happens here will ever be known outside”. Malick’s film belies this conviction, in his way of mani­festing hidden things — judgements without appeal in the confined space of the confronta­tions, the slaps in the darkness of the cells, the hope springing up in the secrecy of the soul. This gives the film’s title A Hidden Life — even greater relevance. It echoes George Eli­ot’s lines in her novel Middlemarch (1871): “The growing good of the world is partly de­pendent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”.6 The beauty of Malick’s film is that it reveals this hidden life while at the same time protecting its mystery. This is the way in which it is epiphanic, and this is doubtless the point of the work as a work of cinematography. Cinema is an art of light, and Malick’s film builds on this origin and vocation of the seventh art. At one point in the story, a village friend, a painter of religious frescos, shares his apprehension with Franz: “Is this year the end of the world? Is it the death of light?”. Para­doxically, the more the narrative plunges into darkness, the more a different light filters through, which reaches Franz on his darkest day. “A new light is spreading”, he says as he suffers humiliation after humiliation and re­ceives blow after blow. His voice, which glides over the images of his dereliction, then unites with that of the psalmist addressing God: “You are my light. Even the darkness is not dark to you... for darkness is as light to you. Before you darkness is not dark. Make shine your light that has no end”. All the light accu­mulated since Creation, in mountain land­scapes, is concentrated and then refracted in the innermost experience. Cinema then ac­quires a new quality, which fulfils its innate epiphanic quality, that of being the art of light. In this it meets the art of the icon; it too dedicated to a form of transparency. In his film on Roublev, Andrei Tarkovski had previ­ously explored the similarity (and difference) between the icon and the projected image. Malick gives the cinema’s epiphanic vocation a completely personal interpretation. The screen is at all points a place of the traversing or diffraction of light: filmed and projected, gathered on the highest peaks and in the deepest darkness, light is diffracted on the screen and traverses all screens. In this, cinema is theophanic — confirming the words of the Creator: “Let there be light!”. The last time Franz’s voice is heard, in a letter ad­dressed to his daughters, we hear him say: “By the time you read this letter your father will be dead. I will pray for you from the other side”. From which side of the screen?

1 “It’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses”.

2 “Franz does not speak; he is led like a lamb to the slaughter, silent like a sheep before its shearers”.

3 “There are no battlefields in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life — only fields of wheat”.

4 In A Hidden Life, as in all Malick’s films, the sounds of nature are underlined by music (the original soundtrack, by James Newton Howard, alternates between Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Dvorak, Gorecki, Schnittke, Pärt, Kilar, Jovanovič, Parsons...), in what Alain Boillat calls “a fascinating maelstrom of sounds and images”.

5 “His story is defined not by his actions but by choices — and specifically, the things he doesn’t do”.

6 “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvis­ited tombs”.

L'Osservatore Romano
8 November 2019, page 6