Jörg Widmer shines a light into darkness in Terrence Malick’s tale of true heroism in A Hidden Life
January 20th, 2020

The resilience of Franz Jägerstätter and his family are the very soul of A Hidden Life and their spirit lingers long after the curtain falls. In writer-director Terrence Malick’s shattering true story set during the Nazi invasion of Austria, the fluid, disembodied camera movement and the juxtaposition of stunning light and landscape with man-made horror, are essential to the power of the story.

“This is an important story that needs to come to life,” says Jörg Widmer, cinematographer and camera operator who has worked for directors Wim Wenders, Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski and Michael Haneke. “This is about a person who is a hero, but who would never end up in the history books. It’s about faith in your beliefs and in humanity not being consigned to the darkness.”

The hero is an Austrian farmer who was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to fight for the Nazis. A Hidden Life is told through the eyes of Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner).

“I read the book and I read the letters they sent to each other (on which the book is based) when he was in the army and in captivity. I was smitten,” Widmer adds.

Widmer is a long-time collaborator with Malick, having operated Steadicam or camera on Tree ofLife, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song as part of Emmanuel Lubezki’s (AMC, ASC) crew.

“When Terry said he wanted to shoot with the speed of a documentary, I instinctively understood what he meant,” the DP recalls.

Unlike Malick’s recent films, which were shot largely on 35mm (mixed with 65mm and digital formats), the primary requirement for natural light and to keep the camera rolling dictated that A Hidden Life be a digital project.

“We would have takes lasting an hour without a break so that the actors could move freely,” Widmer explains. “The idea is that they could improvise, repeat, go again or we could shoot the scene differently. If the camera flows continuously it helps the actors stay in the moment.”

He adds, “We shot some scenes twice – one version handheld and one static — and left the decision about which to use to the edit. Sometimes if the camera follows people smoothly it draws the audience into a scene. Following kids, you are able to put the camera on the ground and let them play, and then take it in hand and run with it. Sometimes it was to make movement more violent and less comfortable.”

This approach demanded that the camera team be just as nimble. “One advantage with digital is that we could shoot scenes so much longer than having to change film mags,” he says.

After tests, Widmer picked the RED EPIC DRAGON camera for its maneuverability and capacity to record stark contrast while preserving details in the highlights and shadows.

“With RED, I found I had full control of the image in a way that I don’t have on another cameras,” Widmer describes. “The whole system is lightweight and easy to use, so we could prepare the cameras in a setup which allowed us to change from Steadicam to slider or handheld in less than a minute.”

Widmer paired the REDs with ARRI Master Primes, mostly using a 12mm and 16mm lens, and occasionally an Ultra Prime 8R T2.8.

“We were always looking for backlight so we needed a package that could take a lot of contrast without flaring and with a huge range of latitude. With Master Primes we could have the sun in shot without creating too much flare, which I didn’t like for this story.”

In fact, Widmer shot with RED EPIC DRAGON at 6K, switching to RED EPIC-W HELIUM 7K when it became available during principal photography. He also deployed two camera bodies alternatively fitted with different filters (Optical Low Pass Filters) to optimize the light for darker interior scenes and for daylight exteriors.

Everything was shot on location to authenticate the natural aesthetic. Locations included a working mill and blacksmith shop as well as several real prisons, including Hoheneck, a notorious Stasi prison near Stollberg, Germany. A few scenes were shot in St. Radegund, where the events depicted actually took place – including some interiors of the Jägerstätter house – and among orchards, along rural pathways and fields, as well as in the mountains of South Tyrol, northern Italy.

“Our locations and schedule were pre-set by the sun,” says Widmer. “If it was raining, we embraced it.”

Artificial lighting was rarely used. Lighting gear consisted mostly of bounce boards and blacks. The barns, for example, were always shot when the openings of the buildings provided sunlight.

“I wouldn’t recommend it for every film, but it was right for this, since being free in nature is part of the subtext of our story,” he adds.

The RED IPP2 pipeline allowed Widmer to preserve the details in the skies and windows as well as in darker locations such as the prison cells.

“In my experience RED offers greater possibilities than other digital cameras to treat the image later. It gives you a larger range for post. IPP2 helps you to get better roll off in the highlights and to better contrast light with darkness.

“Our principal aim with the look was to achieve contrast,” he continues. “We didn’t work with a LUT and we didn’t have any primary colors, except for the red of the swastika flags, which deliberately stick out. With RED, therefore, we took care of contrast and proper exposure and manipulated the natural light as best we could knowing that as soon as we grade (at CinePostproduction Berlin), we could pull everything out in the grass, the sky, and the natural textures.”

Widmer was the sole operator with first AC Alexander Sachariew performing “an amazing job” pulling focus from 3-inches to infinity.

“When you walk through a landscape, you see everything to the left and right, and even if you focus in front of you, you are aware of what is happening all around,” explains Widmer of the startling use of the ultra-wide angle 8R. “We didn’t want to make the choice for the audience for what they see. Even in close-up you see background and mid-ground. I think, I hope, this sense of depth imparts a lot of emotion to the characters.”

Widmer says he has seen the film four times and that the editing (by Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones), sound mix (by supervising sound editor Brad Engelking) and James Newton Howard’s score moves him on each occasion.

“Whatever [Franz] does he can’t do it right because the outcome will always be fatal,” he says. “This is such an important film, particularly for this time, because it concerns humanity and values that we all need now.”

He adds, “We shot so much material and so many beautiful shots that weren’t used but sometimes you have to kill your darlings. This is no time for vanity. The story is well told and I’m extremely proud to have been involved.”

Watch the trailer.

Special thanks to Jörg Widmer for sharing behind the scenes of A Hidden Life.