We investigate the fluid–structure interaction of a vertically hanging filament immersed in uniform incompressible high Reynolds number flow. The filament is subject to small-amplitude harmonic heaving at its upstream edge, and to a gravity-induced (‘hanging chain’) tension force. We focus on the limit of small bending rigidity to examine the differences between a highly elastic beam (where bending rigidity is small but finite) and a membrane (where bending rigidity vanishes). The problem is analysed by means of thin airfoil theory, in conjunction with a discrete vortex model for the downstream wake. Denoting the filament non-dimensional rigidity (normalized by the tension force) by
, it is first verified that the beam deflection and associated flow field converge to the membrane solution at
. At low actuation frequencies, the differences between the membrane and beam motions are small, and both follow a nearly rigid-body motion parallel to the upstream-edge actuation. With increasing frequency, the differences between the beam and membrane become visible at increasingly lower values of
, and the stabilizing effect of beam flexural rigidity, resulting in reduced flapping amplitudes, is apparent. Examining the beam motion near its edge points at non-small frequencies, semi-analytic approximations for the associated time-periodic displacements are obtained. Close to the actuated end, a layer of width
is found, where the flexural rigidity term in the equation of motion is balanced by the tension term. Here, the differences between the beam and membrane deflections are attributed to the additional zero-slope condition satisfied by the former. In the vicinity of the free end, a local Taylor expansion is carried out. A balance between the bending and inertia terms results in a layer of width
denotes the scaled heaving frequency. The layer is therefore thicker than the upstream layer for
, and becomes thinner with increasing
. Within the layer, the beam deflects linearly with the distance from the edge, in marked difference from a membrane and in accordance with the free-end conditions satisfied by the former.