I was going to write an article on Terrence Malick and Martin Heidegger. In the late 1960s, Terrence Malick was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, working on a dissertation in philosophy on Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Malick had not only briefly studied with the latter philosopher, but had translated his Vom Wesen des Grundes into The Essence of Reason, a translation that remains the standard today. Then, in 1969, before finishing his dissertation, Malick left behind academia and became, with his very first feature film, one of America’s best and most elusive filmmakers.

So I was going to write an article about how Heideggerian Malick’s films are—but not in the bad way that something might be Heideggerian, which is to say fascistic. Martin Heidegger’s big question was that of Being: what does it mean to be, what kinds of “beings” are there, and what kind of being is the human? Heidegger argued in his first dissertation [in Germany you have to write two] from 1927 that “Western metaphysics,” which basically meant the habitual ways of thinking in both philosophy and the everyday world, had long ignored the question—was built on ignoring the question—of what Being is. To sum it up in the words of Bill Clinton, for Heidegger what was really important was what the meaning of the word “is” is.

One aim of Heidegger’s philosophy was to get us to look beyond everydayness to truths about the world that were already present in our relationship to the world and in our language. Films like Badlands [1973] and Days of Heaven [1978] are striking works of art about the presence of the world around us, the hollowness of certain ways of being in that world, and how cinema can teach us new ways of apprehending it. They have plots, even sensational ones, but the camera almost works in opposition to the protagonists, lingering on small, environmental details.

But if you want a more thorough run-down of existential philosophy in Malick’s films I can point you here and here, because while researching this article I got a little bit sidetracked by a mystery in Badlands. The scene in which Holly [Sissy Spacek] and Kitt’s [Martin Sheen] camp is raided by bounty hunters represents a surprising shift in the film’s soundtrack, scored by composer Carl Orff: before the bounty hunters appear, frenzied voices whisper indecipherably, gradually coalescing into a refrain in German:
        Die Tür ist verschlossen, wir können nicht rein.
        The door is shut tight, and we cannot get in.

What was this haunting song? I was determined to find out. On the way I found a web of references and resources that might elucidate Badlands—or, just give you a chance to revisit the music.

Answers were somewhat hard to come by on the internet. On movie-geek forums, others [not many] had asked about the origins of this eerie piece, but as there was never an official soundtrack release, it seemed most other parties hadn’t had their curiosity satisfied. Music credits in Badlands are given to Carl Orff, who composed the film’s title theme, “Gassenhauer,” in the early 1950s. [If you’re interested, Hans Zimmer’s “You’re so cool” from the True Romance [1993] soundtrack is an homage/rip-off.] Other pieces from Orff’s cycles Schulwerk and Musica Poetica appear in the film, but reports from forum-dwellers said the piece did not appear to be on CD collections of either work. 

Somebody helpfully pieced together a Spotify playlist of songs that appear in the film—including the indelible “Love is Strange” by 50s duo Mickey & Sylvia—but even there, no dice. Finally, I found what seems to be a term paper on the website of the University of Kiel’s “Society for the Study of Film Music” that answered most of the questions: 

  1. The line about the locked door is from the tail end of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Second Part [1832]. In the Midnight Scene, Faust, the disillusioned scientist who made a pact with the devil, has become a rich man, living in a castle isolated from the rest of the world. The scene opens with four “grey women” standing outside the door to the castle; they identify themselves as Lack, Debt, Need, and Worry [or, as its translated in the linked-to site above, Want, Guilt, Necessity, and Care]. They find that Faust’s door is locked, barring entry to all but Care, who can turn into a shadow and sneak through the keyhole. Brother Death is also on his way, the three other sisters intone as they fly away.
  2. The whispering that precedes the chorus is a mixture of words from Orff’s original composition and Malick’s own mixture of English-language portends, which is part of the reason it was so hard to find.
  3. The music itself is indeed from the second Musica Poetica by Orff and Gunhild Keetman, a series of compositions so long that the six-hour version on Spotify is only “Highlights.” It’s a piece full of various quotations from Goethe’s Faust, appropriately called Aus Goethes ‘Faust.’ 

This musical exploration of Badlands ended far removed from my starting point. But then, Faust, like Badlands, is about a man dissatisfied with the world who looks for alternative answers in all the wrong places, and for whom, at the end, all that is left is Worry and Death.