Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles This video is brought to you by MUBI, claim your free trial and check out the new MUBI library by going to MUBI.com/likestoriesofold I thought it was a dream... what we knew in the forest. It is the only truth. There are only a few directors who have truly developed their own cinematic language like Terrence Malick has. While we can break this down as a combination of techniques like his frequent use of Steadicam, wide-angle lenses, or his use of poetic voice-overs, What's this war in the heart of nature? I am more interested in the immediate experience of his work, which to me feels like a view of the world that is always wandering, that always seems to be in search of something that lies just beyond the story we are witnessing. Actor John C. Reilly once told a story about how he was working on this big scene in The Thin Red Line. He and some of his fellow actors were in this big truck that was set to drive into camp; a huge set on which the crew had to coordinate not only the vehicles, but also the dozens of extras and planes flying overhead. But all of a sudden, Malick spotted a bird and the entire scene was put on hold to film this one creature. It seems to be a frequent occurrence as all of Malick's films contain these spontaneous moments that capture something that clearly wasn't staged, be it crickets in the wheat fields in Days of Heaven, or a butterfly in the street in The Tree of Life. At first glance, it might feel like the point of view of someone who is easily distracted, confused even. This became even more pronounced in his later work, a series of films that were essentially shot without a script, and diverged so much from any kind of pre-conceived structure that even his long-time admirers began to wonder what Malick was trying to achieve. What was he searching for? I thought that we could build our nest high up. With this year's release of A Hidden Life, the true story of an Austrian farmer who was prosecuted for refusing to fight for the Nazis, critics have hailed Malick's return to form. And although the film is indeed more conventionally structured, it still contains many of the same elements. Above all, the main question still remains: what is he trying to achieve? What is he searching for? The Cinema of Terrence Malick Why is there something rather than nothing? Long before his first feature film, Malick was actually on his way of becoming a philosopher. As a university student, he was particularly drawn to the work of one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century: Martin Heidegger. Heidegger argued that philosophy, since the Ancient Greeks, had avoided what he sees as the most fundamental question, that of the meaning of being. A question that was often dismissed for being either too obvious or too indefinable for meaningful engagement. But for Heidegger, this was the result of a wrong perspective on the concept of being, one that is too concerned with consciousness, with traits of being, and not the meaning of being. He was particularly critical of Descartes, whose separation of body and soul, of the world and the mind, created what for Heidegger was a needless abstraction of the way we relate ourselves to existence. In his magnus opus Being and Time, Heidegger carries out his fundamental ontology by introducing the notion of 'Dasein', or 'being-there'; the distinctive mode of Being particular to humans, the beings for whom being matters. Actually, let's not forget: Terrence Malick did not become a philosopher, he became a filmmaker. And this shift from philosophy to cinema, I think, should be taken into account, lest we make a mere overview of Heidegger's ideas as they are represented in Malick's films. Heidegger's ambition was to move away from philosophy as an overly anemic and intellectual endeavor. To him, the discussion of metaphysics was limited by technical philosophical language, one that, as he later admitted, he was not able to transcend in Being and Time despite his already highly poetic style of writing. And I can imagine Malick realized this as well, and therefore set out to explore a different kind of language. So instead of trying to fit cinema into philosophy, let's try it the other way around. Let's see how the work of Terrence Malick not only captures, but also clarifies and contributes to Heidegger's ideas. One of the most recurring elements in Malick's work is his clear distinction between the world of nature, and the world of man, or more specifically; the world of technology. Malick's characters are almost always introduced as practical beings in a practical world; a garbage collector, a factory worker, a soldier, architect, screenwriter, farmer. They capture the fundamental break that Heidegger made with Descartes, and to a lesser extent, his own teacher Edmund Husserl. For Heidegger argued that our default experience of the world is not based on knowledge or reason, but on a pre-existing sense of practicality. Before we question what is, as previous philosophers proposed, we first instinctively see how to use. Heidegger uses the example of a hammer to point out that before we've intellectually questioned the attributes of such an object, let alone pondered the meaning of its existence, we already have an engrained idea of how to use it. It is only when using the hammer fails or surprises us in some way, that we begin to think about its being. And the same goes for our lives in general. In Malick's first film, Badlands, the story is deliberately guided by a rather naïve narrator; by a sheltered teenage girl named Holly. Little did I realise that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana. The story begins with her falling in love with Kit, a James Dean wannabee who takes her on an adventure that eventually becomes a killing spree and ends with both of them arrested. Through her eyes however, the crimes are presented with a rather careless lightheartedness, with a level of mindfulness that does not seem to consider the meaning of what is happening. It exemplifies what Heidegger meant when he said that our default state is not one that questions the meaning of being, and portrays what its consequences are. For a disposition that does not engage with the meaning of being, that does not relate itself to our mortality, to our 'thrownness' as Heidegger called it, has no real connection to life and death, and renders both insignificant. I want you to attack! I want you to attack right now with every man at your disposal! It dulls us into a kind of unconsciousness, and for Heidegger as well as for Malick, this seems to be the great illness of who we are. We see this in the absurdity of war in The Thin Red Line, but we also see it in his later films. In Knight of Cups, the story of a Hollywood screenwriter is paralleled with a fable of a knight who travels west in search for a pearl, but then drinks from a cup that lulls him into a deep sleep, completely forgetting who he is, completely forgetting about the pearl. In Song to Song, the characters deliberately live their lives moment by moment. I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss. A careless existence that does not worry about the grander questions. To symbolize the insidiousness of this kind of unconsciousness, Malick also employs the motif of snakes which, from a biblical perspective, represent the seduction into sin and evil. Sometimes this takes the form of literal snakes, other times they are human characters tempting others with snake-like behavior, The world wants to be deceived. which actor Michael Fassbender emphasizes here through his crawling, aggressive movement. Another motif is our technological progress, and the modernity representing our practical disposition that, in its advancement, removes us ever further from the question of the meaning of being. In The Tree of Life and Malick's later films, the main characters find themselves in completely artificial worlds populated with beings that relish in the excesses of modern life. This, however, is not to make a simple statement about how technology and progress is bad. In Days of Heaven, the characters try to exchange their industrial world for a more natural one. But even here, we see how technology has taken root in what was once the domain of nature. This becomes especially evident in The New World, in which colonists arrive in what to them was a place largely untouched by mankind, a place that is soon transformed by their presence. What The New World shows, perhaps more than anything on this subject, is that a practical approach towards the natural world is not just an illness of modernity, but is engrained in our very being. It just revealed itself more clearly over time. You thought we had forever. That time didn't exist. The real problem with engaging the world based on mere utility is that not only we tend to view its resources as endless, we also see ourselves as practically immortal. Again, a disposition that does not consciously consider the meaning of being has no immediate connection to life, and more importantly, it does not truly concern itself with death, besides acknowledging it as a vague theoretical concept. Of course, sooner or later, despite our best effort to avoid it, the limits of existence will impose themselves on us nonetheless. In Badlands, Holly at one point finds herself out in the wilderness where she is looking at some old images when suddenly her own mortality, and the transience of all things, dawns on her. She wonders what would have happened if she and Kit had never met, or if he had never killed anybody. She wonders what would have happened if her father and mother had never met. In short; she begins to question her world. For days afterwards, she narrates, I lived in dread. I suppose that's what damnation is, the pieces of your life, never to come together. This is where we can re-introduce Heidegger's conceptualization of human existence, which he referred to as our Dasein, our Being-there. According to professor John Haugeland, Dasein should not be understood as 'biological human', nor as 'the person', but as “a way of life shared by the members of some community.” When it comes to what could be seen as our community of human beings; our way of life, our Dasein, is one that can reflect on what it means to be. However, because this is not our default state, and because we are so easily dulled into mere practicality, this only shines through occasionally.