‘A Hidden Life’ Shows Terrence Malick at His Most Inquisitive and Incisive

A Hidden Life Movie Essay - 2019 Terrence Malick Film

A Hidden Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick, depicts the last years of Franz Jägerstätter, a real-life Austrian farmer who became a conscientious objector during World War II. For his refusal to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler on the grounds that he believed the war to be unjust and Nazi ideology to be antithetical to his Christian faith, he was arrested, tried and executed in 1943 — surrendering his life for his principles. During Jägerstätter’s life, and for many years following his death, he was regarded as a traitor not only to his country, but also to his faith. Many of his fellow Austrian Catholics fought for Hitler without any crisis of conscience, seeing the war as justified because it would bring about the eradication of Bolshevism, and therefore the protection of European Christianity. After a significant time spent in the wilderness of historical obscurity, he was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, and was beatified later that same year. His is a story of moral conviction challenged and interrogated on all sides, of man’s search for grace in a world that often appears graceless, and of unacknowledged valor — that scarcely celebrated (and scarcely imitated) act of relinquishing comfort to do the right thing, at great and grave personal cost, and without reward.

Few people are better qualified to tell such a story than Malick, whose entire body of work has been situated at the intersection between the ordinary and the exalted — looking inward at man’s infinitesimal stature, and outward at the vast and often inscrutable universe. A Hidden Life feels, in many ways, like an apotheosis of his art. All of Malick’s distinctive visual and aural hallmarks are here, from windblown fields of wheat to breathy philosophising voiceover. So, too, are the themes that he’s spent his career dissecting: the mundaneness of evil in Badlands, the grapple between nature and grace in The Tree of Life and everything in between. And like all of Malick’s work, A Hidden Life feels profoundly personal. Martin Scorsese recently revealed that he received a letter from Malick, who had just seen Silence, asking, “What does Christ want from us?” It’s the sort of question that Malick’s detractors see as affectation, and that his defenders, myself among them, see as the undiminished candor and curiosity of a great artist still searching for meaning. Every frame of A Hidden Life is informed by unapologetic inquisitiveness. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful tapestry of faith, systemic inhumanity, humility and transcendent love — made with rare sublimity and sincerity.

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Franz (August Diehl) and wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) live with their three daughters in the pastoral idyll of Sankt Radegund, a remote Austrian mountain village. Their existence is humble and tranquil, consisting of work and family, constructed upon the bedrock of their shared faith. Around them, all is bliss — mist, pastures and mountains, like scenes pulled straight from a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Malick has never been anything less than enraptured by nature, and here he takes care to capture everything with his typical awe and reverence, setting modest and diligent human labor against a glorious rural backdrop, so that this small corner of the Earth feels somehow prelapsarian.

But of course, that means a Fall is ineluctable, and Malick never allows the splendour of God’s creation to simply exist on the screen without the complication of encroaching evil. A Hidden Life’s very first shots show not the majesty of the natural world, but black-and-white footage of Hitler being saluted by adoring multitudes at a Nazi rally. That initial glimpse into malevolence colors the images of bucolic serenity that follow with a sense of impending violence and catastrophe, infecting the seemingly uncorrupted landscape with the dread of what’s to come.

What’s to come, of course, is a descent into turmoil. Franz is sent away for military training, and returns a troubled man. He finds that he cannot reconcile his faith with the actions and attitudes of his nation, the persecution and the slaughter. “You’re different,” observes Fani to her husband, and indeed, Franz no longer sees things as he did before. Around him, perversity seems to bleed into what was once innocent, and his temperate quietude mutates into heartbreak and coiling frustration. Everyone seems to share the same sentiments: that Hitler is a protector of traditional Austrian values, and a restorer of Austrian greatness, seizing back the nation from sinister, pathogenic foreigners. From the moment Franz sets foot back in Radegund, A Hidden Life becomes an exercise in anxiety, throbbing with nascent darkness, as Malick spikes his meditative pacing with menace, gradually peeling away the village’s mask of harmony to reveal a face of necrotic flesh. The sound of chirping birds is usurped by salutes of “Heil Hitler,” and the mayor of Radegund, an ostensibly decent man, can be heard spewing fascist rhetoric and bigoted invective.

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There’s something genuinely terrifying about Malick’s depiction of this unmasking — how a place that felt like home can suddenly turn into hostile territory. When word gets out that Franz opposes the war, he and his family face provocation from all sides, and with the wide- angle format that’s become a staple of his modern visual style, Malick distorts idyll into nightmare. Villagers lurk balefully at the edges of the frame like figures from a horror film priming an ambush, and the fields that once offered Franz and Fani the bliss of labor now offer only antagonism and vitriolic opprobrium from their fellow workers. Paradise has become a powder keg awaiting combustion, and Malick lights the fuse with the apocalyptic vision of the mayor ranting and dancing giddily around a bonfire — transforming the warmth of community into the flames of fascism that threaten to incinerate goodness to the ground. There’s a burning urgency to these images that can’t be found anywhere else in Malick’s filmography; the present moment seems as good a time as any to portray a population mobilizing behind and genuflecting before a singular, viciously intolerant authority figure.

Beyond the response of the public, A Hidden Life is interested in larger institutional response. Among the most crushing and pertinent scenes are those in which Franz turns to the clergy for guidance, and receives only rebuke that compounds his alienation. Nowhere is the film’s political edge sharper than in these discussions, where religion and patriotism seep into each other, to disturbing effect. Seeking wisdom, Franz consults first the local priest, and then the local bishop, neither of whom can offer him solidarity. “If our leaders are evil,” Franz enquires, “What does one do?” Invoking strikingly nationalist ideals, the bishop replies that Franz has a duty, prescribed by the Church, to unquestioningly serve his fatherland and its leader. Love of God, he argues, is inextricable from love of country, and love of country is inextricable from love of Hitler. It’s a response that frighteningly posits that the obligation of every Christian is to submit to the higher wisdom of the state, even if that involves committing atrocities. Objection to Hitler is more than just unpatriotic — it’s heretical.

Further still, while Franz argues that to pledge fealty to Hitler is to pledge fealty to the Antichrist, the bishop argues just the opposite: that the Antichrist seduces people by preying upon their virtues — that by dying rather than fighting for Hitler, Franz would be neglecting his duty as a husband and father, and would thus be serving not God, but the Devil. The clergymen’s refusal to denounce Hitler is horrifying enough of course, but even more horrifying is that they’re merely parroting the attitudes of the institutional Church of which they are but a small part. Those attitudes would persist for years after Jägerstätter’s death — the Bishop of Linz would later reaffirm that those Catholics who fought and died in Hitler’s armies did so with clear and correct conscience, while Jägerstätter was in good faith but in error. With an indicting eye, Malick shows the peril that materializes when those who help to mould the consciences of men become mouthpieces for capitulation to political power, and when pernicious worldviews are legitimized to the masses behind the subterfuge of religion.

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Malick then turns that indicting eye on the audience — in particular those who think that they can view A Hidden Life with passive, uncomplicated satisfaction. In one scene, Franz converses with a religious painter whose works fill the local church, and listens as he laments his artistic cowardice. The Christ he paints, he says, is not Christ at all: it’s a cheapened, degraded, sanitised simulacrum, wearing an unperturbed face and adorned with a nimbus. It’s Christ with all of Christ’s suffering expunged — a balm for the masses, the painter himself among them, who can’t handle facing pain and unease. It’s a Christ for the complacent — for those who, without shame, declare that they would have stood with Jesus while others turned their backs. Never has Malick been so abrasively critical, excoriating those who merely pay lip service to goodness and courage. It’s easy for many to say that they wouldn’t have been among those who condemned Christ, but of course, few would be true to that word. Likewise, it’s easy for viewers to project themselves onto Franz, and seemingly embody all his ideals — but how many are truly wise and strong? “Someday,” says the painter, “I’ll paint the true Christ.” A Christ that forces the viewer to confront the cost of virtue. A Hidden Life feels a lot like Malick’s attempt at such an artwork.

The film is full of these small moments and exchanges, which are significant for their boundless empathy. In another such scene, Franz is led aside to talk in private with the Nazi judge (Bruno Ganz) who will pass his sentence. During their conversation, Franz speaks with such certitude and solicitude that the judge cannot help but introspect, and as Diehl’s character is taken away, the judge sinks into the chair where the condemned man sat moments ago, and his downward stare betrays a flicker of something. Exactly what that something is cannot be said — the late, great Ganz withholds such certainty from the audience, as one might expect from one of cinema’s most brilliantly nuanced actors, here in his final performance. Is it merely contemplation, or could it possibly be change? Is the judge trying to comprehend what it would be like to be the man whose fate he’s about to decide? Whatever it is, something inside of him is shaken by the steadfast conviction and compassion he’s witnessed.

As well as being political, A Hidden Life is also deeply, intensely physical. So, too, is all of Malick’s work, probably more so than it’s given credit for. As much as he’s enthralled by the natural world, Malick is equally captivated by the diminutive human figures that reside within that awesome framework. So much of the emotion coursing through his images is generated by the minutiae of the body — those small gestures and postures that afford viewers glimpses into the fathoms of the soul. Think of Martin Sheen’s vacant swagger and Sissy Spacek’s insouciant baton-twirling in Badlands of Sam Shepard’s stiff but endearing dignity in Days of Heaven, of Brad Pitt’s coarse brutishness contrasted against Jessica Chastain’s lithesome poise in The Tree of Life.

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A Hidden Life zeroes in on Diehl and Pachner’s bodies, and extracts from them two displays of visceral, understatedly devastating heroism. Individually, both actors are tremendous, mingling stoicism with vulnerability, carrying themselves through confrontation and prayer with bravery and nobility. But the film truly blossoms when they’re together, and the ecstatic intimacy of the central relationship plays out before the audience’s eyes. A Hidden Life is, among other things, very much a love story — one that revolves around a romance that’s as healthy as it is fiercely passionate. In early scenes, their physical rhythms are perfectly synchronized, whether they’re scything fields side by side, or spiritedly dancing in drunk celebration. When they embrace, everything else seems to melt away into the margins, as Malick focuses intently on every little adoring motion — how they cling to each other’s necks, how their noses scrunch together, how Fani tucks Franz’s hair behind his ear. After a prolonged time apart, the two are physically inseparable when they reunite, locking eyes and lips with fervency verging on ferocity. They fumble and clutch in a grinning daze, intoxicated by each other’s touch, and as they frolic and caress, the soundtrack soars. In that moment, it’s as if their love exalts them beyond a threshold from the worldly into the sublime. And then there’s one particular shot that frames their intertwined hands against the sunlit sky — love on earth that extends to heaven.

The tenderness of A Hidden Life is as lyrical as it is tactile. When Franz is imprisoned, and his interactions with Fani are confined to epistolary exchanges, husband and wife sustain each other from afar with their words, ensuring that separation doesn’t lead to the atrophy of hope. Each letter, heard in voiceover, begins with “Dearest husband,” or “Dearest wife,” like anaphoric stanzas. With naked honesty, the couple share their reflections, doubts and pains. Franz relates to Fani the desolation that he has seen in his fellow prisoners, and how his own suffering pales in comparison. She tells him that their daughters often leave the door of the house open in anticipation of his return, and that she believes that God will not burden them with more than they can handle. Back and forth they write, laying bare their souls, reinforcing their devotion to each other and to God, with Diehl and Pachner saturating every syllable in affection.

It’s that love that makes Franz’s deliberation so painful. Despite his frustration at the bishop’s unwillingness to condemn Hitler, Franz can’t help but be moved by his appeal to survival for the sake of family. Is dying for your principles a noble action if it means divesting your partner and children of love, protection and financial support? When is self-sacrifice noble, and when is it selfish? When is selfishness feeble, and when is it noble? At the same time, Fani must wrestle with her own inner conflict. Viewers learn that before marriage, Franz was not such a principled man, and only became so politically and morally firm because of Fani’s influence. Excruciatingly, she’s forced to choose between setting aside her values by attempting to dissuade her husband from his course, or standing by her values by approving his fatal resistance. A Hidden Life is just as invested in her struggle as it is in his, and Malick crucially provides no easy answers, leaving his audience to stew in ethical dubiety.

All the while, Franz is exhorted by various people to sign a contract that would save his life — to pledge allegiance on the page only, and continue believing something else in his private thoughts. But Franz cannot, and will not yield in any capacity. To save his own life, through speech or through writing, is to implicitly concede that the Nazis are a legitimate regime carrying out a just war. What good are principles if they’re to be so conveniently violated? When his lawyer tells him that signing the document would “free” him, Franz responds emphatically: “I am free.” Accordingly, Malick shoots a great deal of Franz’s incarceration not with the austerity that one might expect given the dismal circumstances, but with startling radiance. Writing to Fani, Franz speaks of a “new light” flooding into his life, and as the words are uttered, the darkness of his cell gives way to two beams of luminous gold — as if he has asked, and so shall receive. And later, as Franz recites Psalm 23, the camera flies elegantly through the prison hallways, constantly looking upward, taking in the rays of sunlight that pierce through the ceiling and transform this barren place into something seemingly glorious. Another filmmaker might have shied away from such bold visual statements of religiousness and transcendence, but Malick leans in and fully commits. The message is clear: prayer replenishes the spirit of a man with true conviction, and crisis serves to clarify and crystalize his faith.

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But constantly reverberating throughout A Hidden Life are a few words spoken softly by Fani to her husband: “You can’t change the world.” At times, those words appear to ring shatteringly true. After all, what meaningful difference can one man’s preserved integrity make in a world seemingly overwhelmed by evil? Franz makes no great speeches, rescues nobody and leaves behind very little — his life seems unremarkable and his death seems pointless. But there is a point, and audiences need only look at the closing lines of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, from which the film takes its title, to find it:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The point is that the quiet courage of individuals of whom we know nothing, whose lives are hidden, has shaped the world that we live in for the better. The point is that being truly principled is a heroic action, and that dying for those principles is a worthy sacrifice. The point is that we each have a responsibility. The point is that we must decide whether we will submit to political authorities that we know to be unjust, or resist them.

It can be strange for non-believers like me, to think and talk about a film that has such a clear sense of faith and spirit, from which your own worldview is so far removed. It can feel as if you’re somehow unequipped to grasp and process the full import of what you’re seeing, let alone discuss it in any meaningful way. But the best religious filmmakers don’t hold the hand of the non-religious viewer, nor do they proselytize — they simply trust that their vision will resonate. Malick doesn’t compromise in his search for divinity, and his film is all the better for it. A Hidden Life struck me in ways that no other film has, religious or otherwise, and there are images from it that are burned into my mind. Among those are its final moments, in which Fani speaks in voiceover, telling Franz that she looks forward to seeing him again. And as she addresses her departed husband, Malick returns to shots of Radegund’s rustic splendor, as if Franz’s essence is now bound to the natural world. “I’ll see you there,” says Fani, “In the mountains.” Love echoes and endures, in God’s creation or simply on Earth.

Cian Tsang (@CianHHTsang) studied English Literature at UCL, and is now a writer based in London. He spends most of his time listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack.