attention and sympathy

The Richard Brody review of Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a reminder of something that’s quite pervasive in criticism, though rarely talked about: the way that a lack of sympathy with a work of art can lead to a lack of attention to it. For instance, Brody says — and he’s not the only critic to have said this – that there aren’t any doubts in the movie, but of course everyone except Franz doubts the wisdom of what he has done. His wife struggles with it, his mother blames his wife for having made him too religious, the people in the village condemn him … and he is not unaffected by these judgments. We don’t know just how affected he is until a moment near the end of the story, when he has the last of his encounters with the last of his questioners, the judge who will pass sentence on him (played with extraordinary power by Bruno Ganz, in his final film role). Franz intuits that this man is different than the others who have interrogated him. All the others have been asking him questions to try to push him in a particular direction, or to fulfill their assigned role, but this judge asks questions because he wants to know their answers. And Franz tells the judge plainly that he simply doesn’t know whether he’s doing the right thing. Even though this is one of the most powerful and affecting scenes in the entire film, Brody manages to miss it.

It’s not the only thing Brody misses. For instance, he says that the Nazis speak German and Franz and his wife Fani speak English. In fact that is incorrect. Most of the movie is in English — for obvious reasons, I trust — but German is used on varying occasions and for varying purposes. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when the imprisoned and beaten and almost despairing Franz prays the Lord’s Prayer – in German. His family also prays in German. In this story German is both the most public and the most private of languages, while English occupies the conversational middle. The strategy is quite complex, but Brody’s lack of sympathy and interest in film disables him from noticing it.

UPDATE: I keep seeing Brody’s claim recycled by other people — it’s kind of astonishing that a criticism of a film can become a demi-meme when it’s flatly false. So, for the record: What does the angry Nazi mayor of St. Radegund speak when he rails against Franz or immigrants or whatever else he rails against? English. What does the elegant pinstripe-suited interrogator of Franz speak? English. What does the judge speak when he asks Franz, “Do you judge me?” English. What does Fani speak when she prays the Lord’s Prayer with her children? German. What does Franz speak when he prays the Lord’s Prayer in his cell at Tegel? German. These are matters of fact, not interpretation. Again: the movie is mainly in English, for obvious reasons, but uses German very occasionally, and when German is used, both decent and nasty people use it.