Terrence Malick’s films reveal his passion for existentialism

The American filmmaker’s movies often feature phony characters inspired by Heidegger’s musings over the concept of authenticityy

Terrence Malick’s films reveal his passion for existentialism

“Films are dreams, films are music. No artistic genre penetrates our conscience, directly touches our feelings, and reaches the dark depths of our souls as films do,” said filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. These words reflect his philosophical soul behind the camera and capture his true essence.

There are myriad examples of writers and philosophers who used cinema to illustrate philosophical theories.

Alongside Bergman, there is Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, and Louis Malle, to name just a few.

Existentialism enjoyed the lion’s share of their attention. This is not surprising given that it is the closest philosophy to every man and artist’s heart.

To channel German philosopher Martin Heidegger, existentialism is not concernedwith science or exploration of the universe but rather with humans and their concerns and the puzzling world into which the species was thrown. It is a philosophy about life — our life as humans when we go out into this world each day.

There is a name I have intentionally held back, until now: Terrence Malick.

Disciple of Heidegger

The American filmmaker is an artistic genius and philosopher. For a short while, he studied the subject at Harvard and Oxford, taught by one of the greatest philosophers of the century, if not the single greatest — Heidegger.

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Martin Heidegger during a discussion in Tuebingen in 1961.

The apprenticeship was short. But it left an imprint on Malick’s whole life. He translated Vom Wesen Des Grundes(The Essence of Reasons) from German into English and taught philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a short period.

Afterwards, he studied cinematography and went on to work in the film industry.

Through his movies — which began in the 1970s until present day — he continues teaching Heidegger’s theories.

Authenticity vs fakeness

Heidegger often debated the concept of authenticity and the distinction between being real and being fake with others.

Malick adores depicting phony behaviour in his films.

Heidegger often debated the concept of authenticity and the distinction between being real and being fake with others, and Malick adores depicting phony behaviour in his films

In a scene from his film Days of Heaven, farmers fight locusts, while the audience enjoys the splendour of the scene, which remains hidden from the farmers, despite its bewitching beauty. Malick enjoys shooting and (over)stretching these moments to remind viewers that they might be living alongside another fake being in their lives.

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A disciple of the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Terrence Malick's movies feature his philosophical theories.

In a scene from his film A Hidden Life, a woman listening to love stories smiles at a man who is actually fooling her. The man was a peaceful Austrian farmer who, all of a sudden, finds himself with Nazi officers and soldiers forcing him to fight by their side.

The Austrian farmer faces the question of liberty — every existentialist's favourite question. Are we responsible for our own fates? Is it possible to deviate from liberty?

The farmer had to be held accountable for his decision to refuse to fight in the war. It was a responsibility with heavy and inescapable outcomes, showing that you are responsible for what you have done, but must also answer for what you have not done.

Heidegger's ideas are featured in all of Malick's movies, includinghis masterpiece The Thin Red Line. The script, Socratic-ally, turns to eternal, existential questions: how did we lose the good we have been given? How did it slip through our fingers? Where does evil come from? How did it manifest in our hearts? What is the meaning of existence?

Life and death

From one movie to another, Malick also addresses Heidegger's favourite issue:  existence in the face of death. Death cuts through life. Accepting the idea of death is freeing. This is where the truth is unveiled. Liberty and the lack of it, choices and responsibility, falsehood and authenticity; Terrence Malick lives these Heideggerian concerns to the letter.

Heidegger adored the natural world and preferred it to the world of technology. All of Malick's cinema features animals, butterflies, locusts, birds, and a rainy and green landscape.

This is the world loved and dreamt of by Heidegger, where one's relationship with the world is not one of self and subject. Instead, it is one where the self melts into the subject.

Heidegger's ideas on the state of consciousness and being are always present in Malick's films.

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American actor Martin Sheen with director, screenwriter, and producer Terrence Malick on the set of Malick's movie Badlands.

At least in one character is fooled by fakery, in a world of chatter. The Thin Red Linefeatured exactly that character — played by academy award-winner Sean Penn — representing awareness and being the shepherd of being, to use Heideggerian terms.

Actor James Patrick Caviezel, however, played the character Witt, a dreamer so immersed in a fake world with unattainable dreams of peace, speaking of the unquenchable torch of love. When this peace-dreaming soldier dies, his realist friend sits beside his grave, choking back his tears and asking: "…how is your torch now?!"

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