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Follow the Light, Follow the Mood: Making Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life”

Employing natural light and nearly hour-long takes, the “Tree of Life” director’s first all-digital film tells the story of Nazi resister Franz Jägerstätter.

Based on real events, Terrence Malick’s newest feature A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. When the Austrian peasant farmer is faced with the threat of execution for treason, it is his unwavering faith and his love for his wife Fani and children that keeps his spirit alive.

Shot almost exclusively using natural light, and with some takes lasting nearly an hour, the cinematography for A Hidden Life was overseen by Director of Photography Jörg Widmer, who — stepping into the shoes of Malick’s longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki — previously served as Steadicam operator on the director’s five earlier films. “Terry and I have a long history of collaboration. As a camera and Steadicam operator on the previous films, I was already involved in Terry’s thoughts, which made it easy for me to apply the rules of how to use the camera for framing and movements and how to light and how to deal with daylight,” says Widmer.

“It was kind of easy, because we know each other,” Widmer said of stepping into the DP’s role in an interview with Steve Pond for The Wrap’s Oscar magazine. “The difference was that I was more involved in the preparation of the movie. I knew more about locations, about the color settings, the color palette for costume and production design. And even more important, I was much more involved in the postproduction.”

Pond notes that “while the film is far more linear and narrative-driven than the other movies Malick has made in recent years, the director’s usual free-flowing process didn’t change much,” he writes. “The takes didn’t end when you finished the scene,” Widmer tells Pond. “They weren’t two-minute scenes — they could be 10 minutes, could be 20 minutes. I think the longest take was about 40 minutes. You would follow the light, follow the mood, follow the kids if they are playing.”

Austin Collins, in his review for Vanity Fair, calls A Hidden Life “strange,” noting that the film is “an uncanny mix of everything that has made Malick’s style recognizable (and maybe, depending on you, infuriating) since The Tree of Life — all those non-scenes and their overtly physical displays of feeling, those voice-overs that are at times explicitly epistolary but otherwise feel like confessions to God — with these uncanny intrusions of World War II footage and images of Hitler, of marches, of encroaching crisis. A Hidden Life has a grand (this being Malick), totalizing subject at its core: nothing less than the rise of pure evil, evil that travels with such political force that even the church, Franz is chagrined to learn, cowers at the risk of condemning it.”

In a major departure for Malick, A Hidden Life unfolds in a linear fashion, and from the beginning audiences know what the end will bring. “It’s the way Malick makes you see the story that matters,” Collins writes:

“…and maybe, in this case, sticking closer to a script than usual (if that’s true; it’s hard for even a Malick fan to imagine) helped. Since at least 2017, Malick has claimed that this film, which was originally titled Radegund, would be a return to a slightly more straightforward style of filmmaking. ‘Lately — I keep insisting, only very lately — have I been working without a script and I’ve lately repented the idea,’ he said when A Hidden Life was still in post-production. ‘The last picture we shot, and we’re now cutting, went back to a script that was very well ordered.’”

“Terrence Malick has one of the most intriguing — and influential — approaches to cinematic storytelling of any director working today,” IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt writes ahead of his interview with Widmer and A Hidden Life stars Valerie Pachner and August Diehl. “His process is also one that has evolved over the years. In the 38 years prior to The Tree of Life, he has made only four feature films. In the eight years since 2011, the 76-year old director has released four more features, along with a documentary, Voyage of Time.”

Speaking to O’Falt, Widmer says, “This film follows a storyline, but it’s about exploring this humanity. You have many different options of how to capture that, and the way Terry does it is by letting the scene flow.” Shooting with a wide lens allowed for quicker setups but presented other challenges, Widmer also told O’Falt:

“We got closer to the actors because of the focal length. The wider lens gives you the chance to have close-ups even if they are six inches away. Then you can quickly pull back, just a little bit, and you have an over-the-shoulder shot, which if you’re on a long lens [that same type of transition between shots] would require an enormous amount movement. But with the wider lens, you can get to new positions and compositions easily.”

The production prepped in spring and shot in the summer, capturing footage in churches and cathedrals, farms with real livestock, orchards, up mountains, in fields and along rural pathways. “Nature and the natural environment were part of the subtext and the locations provided us with a foundation to build up from,” says supervising art director Steve Summersgill.

Shot over the course of eight weeks in July and August of 2016, the production spent 24 days in South Tyrol, the northernmost province of Italy, then moved into Austria itself, shooting for a few days in St. Radegund itself. For the prison scenes, the production spent the last 14 days in Germany, filming for a week in both Zittau and Berlin. The team had to be small, agile and flexible. “Changing lighting conditions required a continuous attention for stop changes to ensure proper exposure,” Widmer explains.

Widmer agreed with Malick’s edict to use natural light, employing artificial lights only on rare occasions. For all the other sets, including inside the prison cells, the team simply used the right time of the day to shoot it until they lost the light. “The barns were always shot when the openings of the buildings provided sunlight or at least brightness,” says Widmer.

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The team only had to change the shooting schedule once: When the weather forecasters said it wasn’t going to be sunny on the day they planned to shoot the interior of the water mill. “Terry´s dogma was ‘the sun is our gaffer.’ Morning shoot towards East, afternoon shoot towards the west. Never look north,” says production designer Sebastian Krawinkel.

“Terry tends to avoid conventions and find new ways of storytelling. Actors are fascinated by his way of directing and the amount of freedom to experiment and propose,” says Widmer.

Marking Malick’s first all-digitally shot film, footage for A Hidden Life was captured on the RED Epic Dragon camera system. The camera was selected for its ability to handle stark contrast within a scene, preserving details in both the highlights and shadows of the image, while still maintaining realistic color. “We were prepared to keep the camera gear small,” says Widmer. “The lighting gear consisted mostly of bounce boards and blacks.”

Widmer details the camera and lens package in an interview with Emily Buder for No Film School:

“We used two RED Epics. We used the ARRI Master Primes 12mm as the main lens, 16mm as our long lens, and sometimes the Ultraprime 8R. To shoot in the film’s many dark spaces, we had a low-light camera set up. We had a high-light camera for the sunshine and for brighter spaces, to get maximum resolution and definition in the imagery of the skies. We had a Steadicam. We did some handheld and used some sliders and sticks. The most important thing is that you are able to switch from one to the other in just a second.

“You always follow what is available. If you shoot with available light, you should stick to the conditions you are given. In Europe, you often have more clouds than you have in Texas, for example. Therefore, you have to do other things you wouldn’t have done in full sunshine.

“On the other hand, sometimes we shot in dark spaces, like farmhouses in the mountains with little windows. But we were prepared for this, and we could use the light we had wisely.”

Want more on A Hidden Life? In the audio player below, listen to Jörg Widmer discuss the film’s cinematography — including the camera and lens packages, the challenges of shooting with only wide lenses, and why the longest take was almost an hour — in an interview with Ben Consoli for the Go Creative Show: Listen here.

Looking for more creative inspiration?

Read more: How ‘A Hidden Life’ DP Shot Malick’s First Digital Film With Mostly Natural Light (No Film School)

Read more: How Terrence Malick Got His Rapturous, Mystical Look in ‘A Hidden Life’ (The Wrap)

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