View at the Alps at Axams/Austria Credit: Alkuin/Flickr

The debut issue of Liberties, the new journal edited by Leon Wieseltier,* carries an essay by the contrarian film critic David Thomson arguing that A Hidden Life, the 2019 Terrence Malick film that nobody I know ever saw, ranks among Malick’s masterpieces BadlandsDays of Heaven and (here I quarrel with Thomson’s judgment) The Thin Red Line. It was, Thomson argues, the greatest film of 2019. So last night I watched it.

Days of Heaven is one of the most deeply affecting films I’ve ever seen, with an aesthetic all its own that, to my mind, Malick has never recaptured. All the hallmarks of Malick’s subsequent style are there: inarticulate protagonists dwarfed by larger forces they understand only dimly; painterly beauty in every frame; a hauntingly lush musical score drawing from the classical repertoire (in this case, the “Aquarium” movement in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals”); an exquisite sensitivity to nature; a powerful but inscrutable blending of pantheist and Christian motifs; an emphasis, in the actors’ performances, more on gesture than on dialog; and banal narration to carry a spare plot forward.

It’s a difficult aesthetic to enjoy if you care about words. Malick got me over that hump in Badlands and Days of Heaven by rendering the narration quite deliberately naive, expressed by children in a vocabulary of tabloid cliches of which they were touchingly unaware. As in a Coen brothers film, this created satirical distance.

I never got with the program after Days of Heaven because in Malick’s subsequent films we were asked to take the banal narration and interior monologues at face value, and I just couldn’t do that. It wasn’t that Malick couldn’t write dialog; in, for example, Nick Nolte’s masterful fog-of-war scene yelling angrily into a field telephone in The Thin Red Line, or in some of Brad Pitt’s powerful bullying scenes in The Tree of Life, he showed that he could. He just preferred not to.

Thomson notes in his Liberties essay that Malick’s films after The Tree of Life drifted further from human speech and the whole idea of narrative. I gave up after the solipsistic To The WonderA Hidden Life, Thomson argued, was a return to form. Certainly, it’s a return to a more readily identifiable theme—in this instance, the profound mystery of martyrdom.

Saints are, as George Orwell famously noted, problematic figures, and they’re especially hard to dramatize. Bernard Shaw succeeded in Saint Joan by rendering his heroine appealingly oblivious to the duplicities of ordinary human interaction and played much of the resultant misunderstanding as comedy. In A Hidden Life, Malick’s saint is Franz Jägerstätter, a real-life farmer in the Austrian alps who refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler and was executed as a result. (He was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2007.) Unlike Joan, Malick’s Jägerstätter is aware that he’s a weirdo. He knows he’s condemning himself to death with his actions, and, and that, apart from the unconditional love that his uncomprehending wife extends, he’s entirely alone. Even the priests Jägerstätter consults advise him to betray Christian principles and align himself with evil. In Malick’s telling, they aren’t unreasonable. They’re human, and they want to live. It isn’t normal to think otherwise.

Malick applies his usual technique of obliterating dialog and rendering his characters’ thoughts mostly through banal interior monologue. But in A Hidden Life these spare and unsophisticated words address questions so big that most of us seldom consider them past the age of 14. At least some of them surfaced in Malick’s earlier films, but here they appear in capital letters. WHY DOES GOD PERMIT SUFFERING? IF HE EXISTS, DOES HE CARE ABOUT US AT ALL? WHY TAKE THE RIGHTEOUS PATH IF IT WON’T CHANGE THE OUTCOME? IS THERE SOME INTANGIBLE WAY THAT UNRECOGNIZED SACRIFICE BENEFITS LATER GENERATIONS? (The film’s title alludes to George Eliot’s observation that “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.”)

Even more than in his other films, Malick shows his characters through the wrong end of the telescope. They’re tiny, in this case literally dwarfed by snow-capped mountains above bright green fields, and they’re nearly as mute as the landscape. Things happen to them, but what they think or say about them doesn’t matter. What matters is how they feel, which is expressed not in what they say (especially when angry, they often speak German with no subtitles) but in how they look against the backdrop of the natural world.

I’ve been to the Austrian Alps, and they appear godly even to a confirmed atheist like myself. They’re also more saturated in Catholic devotion than any place I’ve ever been, including the Vatican. You can’t walk five steps without tripping over a rustic shrine. Even the barns have crucifixes hanging on them as if someone were trying to convert the cows and pigs. It takes an act of will to remember that it was in this overpoweringly beautiful and pious place that, in 1945, Hermann Goering was taken prisoner by the 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion.

A Hidden Life is Malick’s most ambitious attempt yet to tell a human story through the sights and sounds of mountains and streams and animals, alive and dead, and rustic dwellings blended skillfully with lush symphonic music. It reminded me a bit of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, another film that was all sights and sounds, and which Pauline Kael dismissed memorably as a “coffee table movie.” But I don’t remember Kubrick using his painterly tableaux to demonstrate that God is all around you, if you’d only open your eyes.

A Hidden Life really is rapturously beautiful, and I wasn’t bored. But in essence it’s a silent movie with sound. Malick acknowledges that in startlingly literal fashion in scenes that take place in a military prison yard in Berlin, where etched on the prison wall are the words, “Sprechen verboten.” There can be no more succinct description of Malick’s filmmaking philosophy. He doesn’t want to make talkies. He is perhaps the last of the great silent filmmakers.

I don’t know what to think of the result. I tried to watch A Hidden Life with Thomson’s eyes, and to open my mind up to the idea that God is love and beauty and standing up for principle and also cruelty and suffering and horror. I think Malick succeeds in communicating these things. But he’s asking me to banish words entirely and to imbibe his film through my senses, and I’m not sure that’s enough. I’ve never had a metaphysical bone in my body, so perhaps I’m not the best to judge. But I’m glad Thomson nudged me to watch.


*Leon, a former colleague at the New Republic, was exposed three years ago as a sexual harasser and suffered public humiliation and appropriate condemnation, including from me, as a result. He also suffered the loss of his livelihood. Now he’s re-emerging from exile. We can all debate whether he’s paid sufficiently his debt to society. I believe he has. Meanwhile, this first issue of Liberties deserves to be judged on its merits, and I think it’s quite good. We now resume discussion of the topic at hand.

Timothy Noah

Follow Timothy on Twitter @TimothyNoah1. Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.