The cinematography of Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, by Jörg Widmer, does the heavy lifting in communicating the film's ideas.
If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?
That’s the rhetorical maxim that Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life explores. In this case, the tree that falls is Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer whose piety and morals were put to the ultimate test when his country was annexed during World War II. When Jägerstätter—a real person, who lived from 1907 to 1943—was drafted into wartime military service and refused to swear an oath of fealty to Adolf Hitler, whom he saw as the antichrist with dangerous ideology. This act of conscientious objection cost him his life. This is a film about an ordinary martyr, and here's the question Malick puts forth: Does resistance matter if it is, in effect, futile? If it will save no one? If it will be forgotten, without influence?
Jägerstätter, who is portrayed in Malick's film by August Diehl, is a man of few words. When the quiet hero does speak, it’s sometimes in English, and often in German—un-subtitled. Some of the dialogue and narration is drawn from letters that the real Jägerstätter wrote to his wife, Franziska, after he was captured and imprisoned, while she remained in their idyllic Alpine town. (The contrast of their existences—the freedom of agrarian life versus the torture and solitude of imprisonment—throws Jägerstätter's sacrifice into sharp relief.)
"With Terry, you discover the world, so no matter what is scripted, every day is an adventure."
The film's reticence is by design. In true Malick fashion, he wants the imagery to do the heavy lifting. Jörg Widmer delivers on this promise—Malick's longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki here steps aside for Widmer, who has worked as a camera operator on Malick’s films since 2005’s A New World. Widmer is an effective conduit for Malick's lyrical, stream-of-consciousness style of cinematography. Widmer captures the majesty of the landscapes and the fleeting raptures of emotion with Malick's signature sweeping camera. The approach to the film's cinematography was largely improvisational; one take lasted 43 minutes. A Hidden Life was also shot entirely digital—a first in Malick's career—and with mostly natural light.
No Film School caught up with Widmer to discuss...
No Film School: You were a camera operator on several of Malick's earlier films. How did observing his approach to cinematography groom you for this film, where you take up the mantle as his DP for the first time?
Widmer: We've known each other for quite a while, so we developed this approach over a couple of movies with Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki]. Framing-wise, we took the chances we've always taken.
The difference here [as cinematographer] is that I was much more involved in the preparation of the film, in terms of choosing locations and selecting the style. It was also very important to be involved in post-production in a way that I wasn't before. I helped a lot with the grading.
"He wanted to show a hero who you normally would not have heard of—a guy who will not end up in the history books because his story seems to be meaningless for the world."
NFS: What were some initial conversations that you and Malick had about your participation in the film?
Widmer: Terry told me to read the book about Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, and he told me he wanted to shoot a movie about this true story. He wanted to show a hero who you normally would not have heard of—a guy who will not end up in the history books because his story seems to be meaningless for the world. Already, this approach is amazing; I knew there was something here.
NFS: What is specifically different about Malick's approach to cinematography, and your approach by extension, as compared to other filmmakers?
Widmer: Terry is just a joy to work with. With Terry, you discover the world, so no matter what is scripted, every day is an adventure. You never know how the day will end. We have a plan for the day, but regarding weather conditions or the mood of the kids or other challenges, it will not necessarily end up the way it was scripted.
This is challenging because you [encounter] things that you are not prepared for. But you also get rewarded with incredible results from the spontaneity of the actors. And the way we shot, we had minimal technical equipment—if it's never in your way, you can really react to whatever happens.
"We had minimal technical equipment—if it's never in your way, you can really react to whatever happens."
NFS: In terms of that minimal equipment, what did you have, and how did that enable you to be more nimble?
Widmer: Well, this was Terry's first digital movie. 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.
NFS: How, specifically, did you increase your latitude in shooting with natural light in dark spaces?
Widmer: Sometimes we'd increase the contrast by using small LEDs. We always tried to use the space at the right time of the day. For example, you wouldn't shoot a south-facing window at 5:00 in the evening, because then you lose some of the magic. You must always use the sun wisely.
Using this two-camera system, we shot indoors with a low light filter, an OLPF [Optical Low Pass Filter], which gives you so much in the darkness and a little bit less in sky resolution or definition. When we went outside, we just swapped cameras.
We were permanently changing the stop according to their requirements. The DIT, Chris, did it so well--he was already preparing his own grading on set. If you go from a very dark space into the brightness, you have to pull the stop, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do, because later in the rushes, it was very good to have everything in the right settings. So this was one part of the system, to have the DIT always changing the stop. Therefore we were able to shoot very long takes.
"This is Terry's way of shooting movies: rather than sticking to the script too closely, he lets the actors do their thing."
NFS: There was a single take that lasted almost 45 minutes. How do you shoot these long single takes?
Widmer: Physically, well... a soccer player has to play 90 minutes, you know? You just have to be prepared.
Since we shot digital, you can do these long takes. The long takes give you an opportunity to get a performance that you may not get otherwise. It starts to become an exciting process—you see things happening in front of the camera that weren't in the script. This is Terry's way of shooting movies: rather than sticking to the script too closely, he lets the actors do their thing.
NFS: This was the first time Terry had shot digital. What was it like making that transition with him?
Widmer: Well, actually, it was not the first time he shot digitally. On Song to Song and Knight of Cups, there were parts shot digitally at dusk and night. This was just the first time an entire Malick movie was shot digitally. We tested it, and we showed it to him, and then he was quite convinced to take the step.
Film stock still has a certain feel. But now you can treat digital footage in post-production to get similar results. This is new—it's something that wasn't available just a couple of years ago.
"It's about finding images that tell the story as well as a close-up of an actor or a line of dialogue."
NFS: What was your involvement in post like?
Widmer: Well, the DIT was involved in shooting the film with us. Then every evening, we graded the rushes on set. This gave us a lot of metadata, which we could use later in post-production. Thanks to the DIT, the metadata already had look which we wanted to have for the final grading. And the rest was up to the color grader.
NFS: The film has a lot of really big ideas, many of which are metaphysical. You did an excellent job of translating those ideas to the screen. Can you talk a little bit about your approach?
Widmer: Terry's a master of not showing what he wants to tell. For example, my favorite scene in the movie is the execution. That sounds weird, but in fact, it is because you don't actually see the execution. Terry is a master of just giving you the idea of the execution, but not being forced to watch it. I think it's so much stronger, emotionally, this way. You're only going to see a curtain, then you see the guillotine, but you don't see the execution. And it brings you to tears. It's so sad.
Widmer: Often, with Terry's films, it's more about the [events] that are not seen, but suggested with imagery. For example, the touching of hands, maybe the wind in the trees, or the river flowing. It's about finding all these signs and images that tell the story as well as a close-up of an actor or a line of dialogue. If there are amazing clouds in the sky, sometimes that imagery tells you more about the character's mood [than listening to him speak].
We were always looking for these images when we were not shooting actors. Since we didn't have too much equipment—which meant no trucks in the way—we were free to go and scout and just shoot wherever we found it suitable.
NFS: Going back to Terry's improvisational style and the long takes, how did the actors adapt to this method? Did that affect the way that you shot them?
Widmer: Well, because of the natural lighting in this movie, we wanted to be careful to capture contrast. We had to make sure that behind the character, the world is dark, and in front of him, it's bright. We were always going for this backlight principle. It was very easy with a flexible crew. The camera followed the actor with mostly Steadicam, handheld, and sometimes with a slider when it was for the wider shot.
August Diehl, the main actor, embraced this way of shooting from the beginning. You know, as an actor, you are used to delivering your line, going to a certain mark, and then walking back. Then you do it 20 times over again. This was not the case here.
At the end of the shoot, [Diehl] said, "For the first time, I'm not acting. For the first time, I was the character." That was kind of amazing.