Ever since Walter Benjamin observed, in the epilogue to his much-cited 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that the logic of fascism was toward “the introduction of aesthetics into political life,” Western artists have gravitated toward one of two paths. Many leftwing artists, suspicious not only of the aestheticization of politics but of any emotional appeal not immediately assimilable to their political purposes, have taken part in a counterattack that culminates, as Benjamin predicted it would, in the full “politicization of art”—that is, the reduction of art to agitprop. Liberals and many conservative writers have, on the other hand, predominantly done as Knausgaard recommended and tried to sequester aesthetics within the artistic sphere, even there taking care not to let things get out of hand.
An appreciation of the full spiritual force of movements like Nazism might encourage us to countenance a third alternative, one that acknowledged the centrality of symbolism and emotion to political life, and deployed them against the eroticized collectivism that is so evident in Riefenstahl’s film. This aesthetics would honor the triumph, we might say, not of the collective will, that threatening “we,” but of the individual conscience.
Midway through A Hidden Life is an arresting tableau: Hitler, again in grainy film footage, appears in uniform, playing with a little boy on the viewing deck of his retreat in the Bavarian mountains, the sun glittering off the mountainside behind him. The interlude—beautiful but haunting (haunting because beautiful)—underscores, just as the film’s opening does, the aesthetic and emotional appeal of the Nazi project. Malick does not shrink from this appeal, but neither does he allow it to shrink his own ambition as an artist. In a film that begins with Riefenstahl’s footage, the very worst that can ensue from the politicization of such ambitions is in full view. But A Hidden Life rather than being intimidated into modesty by fascist art, presents a countervailing utopia to the völkisch collectivist one, holding out the prospect of a different kind of “escape from the self.”
It is not incidental to Franz’s story that, for him, religion is still an open door. Christianity provides both the substance and the inspiration for the orienting world “beyond” politics in A Hidden Life. Of course, as the film depicts, plenty of churchgoing Christians were among Nazism’s most enthusiastic supporters. And conversely, the aesthetic power of Malick’s late films, even as they have grown more explicitly Christian in their imagery and message, is perfectly accessible to many of us who are not Christians. Christianity, in these films, is one among many educators of the moral sentiments, one among many reminders that ethical action is not dependent on “historical and political insight” and often will remain unmoved by it. Art can be another such educator.
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