Terrence Malick’s Heideggerian Cinema

By Marc Furstenau and Leslie MacAvoy

terrence-malick.jpgTerrence Malick

War and the question of being in The Thin Red Line

In 1998, almost 20 years after the appearance of his last film Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s new work The Thin Red Line was released. It continued his ongoing philosophical project; indeed, it is a film that aspires to the status of a philosophical treatise, manifesting key themes and issues specifically from the work of Martin Heidegger.

It is these more complex aspects of the film that have been characterised as examples of his ‘difficulty’. Yet, given that his first career was as a philosopher, the clues towards meaning in Malick’s films are readily available, while the supposed obscurities of his films may be illuminated by placing them within a specific philosophical tradition.

Those who have engaged critically with his work however, tend to go no further than the more popular accounts, and frequently express frustration and often disappointment at his pretensions. A recent example is Tom Whalen’s account of what he describes as the failures of The Thin Red Line. He accuses Malick of perpetrating a ‘metaphysical hoax’, enumerating a variety of discrepancies between the film and its literary source (James Jones’ 1961 novel), towards which, he argues, Malick does not display the appropriate fidelity. Both Jones’ novel, and the war itself, have, he insists, merely “become for Malick a place to play with his philosophical conundrums about nature and our relationship to it”.[1]

badlands-terrence-malick.jpgBadlands, 1973

While for Whalen this is the source of Malick’s failure, for us it is precisely Malick’s use of such material – the popular formats of the war novel and the combat film – for philosophical ends that makes his film unique and worthy of careful consideration. The question for us is just how Malick puts identifiable philosophical themes into play in the film and how he raises fundamental questions about cinema, images and representation through the liberties he in fact takes with this source material.

It is well known that after his return from Oxford, Malick briefly taught philosophy at MIT. Having travelled to Germany in the mid-1960s to meet Heidegger, Malick translated his Vom Wesen des Grundes as The Essence of Reasons (1969). He seemed to be headed for the life of a traditional philosopher, settling into a career of teaching and writing. Yet he chose instead to study the cinema and transformed, one could argue, his knowledge of Heidegger into cinematic terms.

In 1969, he entered the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies, where he made his first film, the short Lanton Mills. But the character of Malick’s philosophical investigation into the cinema became clear only with the 1973 release of his debut feature Badlands and then, five years later, Days of Heaven, a stunning, evocative portrait of the beauty and fragility of earthly existence.

Malick himself is notoriously silent about his films, which he believes are capable of functioning without any subsequent comment on his part. Yet this is not to say that the films simply speak for themselves. They insist upon a critical response. In this they perform their first and perhaps most traditional philosophical function, as they propose an argument and initiate a dialogue. The American philosopher Stanley Cavell, author of several significant books on film, was among the first, and remains one of the few, to answer the call of Malick’s philosophical cinema, quickly recognising the affinities between his and Malick’s projects as well as the films’ explicit Heideggerian concerns. In the forward to a second edition of his ontological analysis of the cinema, The World Viewed, Cavell offers some brief comments on Days of Heaven, in which, he argues, Malick has made visible certain key Heideggerian themes, particularly that of the ‘Being of beings and the presence of beings’.[2]

days-of-heaven-terrence-malick.jpgDays of Heaven, 1978

He argues that Malick has “found a way to transpose such thoughts for our meditation” and has transformed them into cinematic terms “by having discovered, or discovered how to acknowledge, a fundamental fact of film’s photographic basis: that objects participate in the photographic presence of themselves; they participate in the re-creation of themselves on film; they are essential in the making of their appearances”.[3]

This characteristic is common to virtually all film, which makes objects and individuals present for the viewer despite their actual absence, and thereby foregrounds the more general human capacity to make present things that are absent, to produce representations of otherwise intangible concepts and ideas through conceptualisation. The cinema as such, argues Cavell, produces reflexive images. “Objects projected on a screen”, he insists, “are inherently reflexive, they occur as self-referential, reflecting upon their physical origins. Their presence refers to their absence, their location in another place”.[4]

Beyond such inherent reflexivity, however, in order for a film to achieve the status of art, to put the film image’s reflexive character to some purpose, the film-maker must endeavour to explore the significance of the distance between the thing seen and the thing itself, between the object and its realisation as idea or image. The structures of presence and absence, which have long provided the contours of metaphysical thinking, and which are recreated or re-enacted through the technology of the cinema, have also functioned to distance human beings from a world which is rendered conceptually as an idea or as an image.

thin-red-line-terrence-malick.jpgThe Thin Red Line, 1998

The core of Cavell’s view is that there is a connection between metaphysical and cinematic representation. Metaphysical views are visions of the world which, according to Heidegger, become so sedimented that we forget they are representations or interpretations. The presenting of what is absent through those representations becomes occluded. As observed, the cinema also provides us with representations of the world, and in this it importantly resembles metaphysics. But it also contains the often unrealised possibility of presenting these representations, of drawing attention to the fact of them. The task of a philosophically-engaged cinema is to address both the inherent reflexivity of the film image, as well as the potential consequences of the transformation of the world into an image.

For Cavell, Malick has accomplished these objectives in Days of Heaven and has provided images that refer to their status as images while simultaneously registering the necessity as well as the danger and poignancy of living in a world of images. Thus, for both Cavell and Malick, the cinema can serve as a medium for addressing the philosophical problem of (the representation of) presence or Being, which is of central importance to Heidegger and modern, self-reflexive philosophy generally.

Similarly, The Thin Red Line offers at once a vision of the world and a profound reflection upon the process of producing such visions. Describing Days of Heaven, Cavell wrote that ‘the film does indeed contain a metaphysical vision of the world; but I think one feels that one has never quite seen the scene of human existence – call it the arena between earth (or days) and heaven – quite realized this way on film before’.[5] In The Thin Red Line we find a similar realisation, a visual investigation of the human situation, of our living in a world which it is beyond our capacity fully to conceive, but for which conception we have devised a complex arsenal of techniques, an arsenal, given that this is also a war picture, with which literally to dominate this world.

In this regard, Malick is performing the function of the artist, of the poet during what Heidegger called ‘destitute times’, when the world is voided of mystery and depth, as language, thought and representation themselves are put to merely instrumental ends. Heidegger accorded to poetry and art an important and specifically restorative function. The poet’s task, as Heidegger insists in What Are Poets For? is to reveal what metaphysics has obscured: the presencing of Being through the use of evocative, poetic language.

Philosophy, thus, must become poetry, and poetry must become philosophical. We believe Malick has assumed the role of the poet-philosopher, putting the cinema to poetic and philosophical ends, revealing, through the use of poetic, evocative imagery, the relation between Being and the medium of film, revealing the cinema’s unique presencing of Being. Neither obscure nor oblique, Malick’s cinema must be understood to be performing a valuable gesture of clarification.


[1] Tom Whalen (1999): “Maybe all men got one big soul”: The Hoax Within the Metaphysics of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Literature/Film Quarterly, 27 (3), pg 162-166. (pg 166)
[2] Stanley Cavell (1979): The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, enlarged edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[3] ibid; pg xv
[4] ibid; pg xv
[5] ibid; pg xv

This is extracted from an essay in Poetic Visions of America: the Cinema of Terrence Malick, edited by Hannah Patterson (Wallflower Press, forthcoming, 2003).