While Malick’s technique is perhaps more restrained than in recent films, A Hidden Life remains a departure, rather than a retracing of past glories.
For many of those viewers who have felt increasingly alienated by Terrence Malick’s increasingly alienating work over the past decade, the director’s latest film, A Hidden Life, seemed to suggest a welcome return to form. Here he is again working in a period setting and seems finally to have regained the desire to film from an actual script, abandoning the improvisatory style that defines his triad of Hollywood star-lead treatises on modernity, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song. But for someone like myself, who finds the formal experimentation and abstract emotional approach of those films to be thrilling and often deeply moving, a “return to form” sounded like another term for regression. Luckily, however, the film defies such a woefully inadequate description; while Malick’s technique is perhaps more restrained than in recent films, A Hidden Life remains a departure, rather than a retracing of past glories.
For one, this marks Malick’s first time making a narrative feature not set in America. The film is based on the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer living in the rural mountain village of St. Radegund, who was executed in 1943 for his conscientious objection to the war and refusal to swear allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich. It’s curious that despite this being one of Malick’s longest films, second only to the recent 188-minute cut of The Tree of Life, its narrative is rather contained. Unlike that film, whose account of an American family in the 1950s gets blown out to encompass the creation of the entire universe, A Hidden Life never leaves the perspective of Franz (August Diehl) or his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), with the exception of a few sequences constructed out of archival footage (much of it taken from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film Triumph of the Will). Though nominally a WWII film, and a Holocaust film, we see neither. Franz doesn’t ever bear witness to the atrocities of the war he’s objecting to, nor to any grueling images of concentration camps, and neither do we. The only Jew we encounter is one who appears to be hiding out in the woods near Radegund, glimpsed briefly by both Franz and Fani but never discussed. One might eventually begin to wonder just why it is that Franz feels so resolute in his rejection of Nazism, especially when those around him seem to accept it without question. But Malick is never particularly concerned with the why, rather he pursues the what and the how.
Following the footage from Triumph of the Will that opens the film, we are treated to a vision of Radegund as a sort of blissful Eden; the villagers labor in pleasant harmony up high in this brilliant, mountainous landscape, closed off from the rest of the world. It’s a representation that resembles the utopic innocence of the South Pacific islands at the beginning of The Thin Red Line. But just as in that film, World War II arrives as a force of irresistible corruption. The first sign of trouble in this paradise is the sound of jets flying overhead, and watching Fani turn her eyes skywards, we’re reminded of the image that opens Riefenstahl’s film, of Hitler’s plane soaring through the clouds on its way to Nuremberg –– fascism is descending on this mountain idyll. The choice to incorporate this cinematic propaganda is not a frivolous one on Malick’s part: another scene, coming after Franz has been called up to basic training, finds him among a group of fellow soldiers watching a screening of one of these propaganda films. The other soldiers cheer along while Franz grimaces in silence, the images flickering before him increasing in their destructive carnage along with the crowd’s applause.
Many of Malick’s films feature a protagonist who might be considered an exile, and A Hidden Life is perhaps the foremost example of this pattern. His resistance to Nazi ideology dismantles the once-harmonious relationship between him and the rest of Radegund, rendering him and his family pariahs. People Franz has presumably known his entire life glower when he passes by, sometimes even getting physically aggressive, while the ultra-wide-angle lensing favored by Malick and DP Jörg Widmer further emphasizes the distance between the Jägerstätters and their disdainful neighbors.
Tensions continue to build in the village until Franz is officially drafted. The largest portion of the film takes place after he has been arrested for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance. Put simply, we watch as Franz suffers. The harsh concrete cells and confined patch of grass that serves as the prison yard stand in sharp relief to the wide, open spaces of his home, as does the violence and torment he endures at the hands of guards –– it’s diametrically opposed to the peaceful vision of Radegund before its fall. Things reach the point where all he would need to do is sign a paper renouncing his actions, and he would be allowed to carry out his service in a hospital or some other non-violent wing of the military, but he remains steadfast.
This section is not limited to Franz, however: we frequently return to Fani, and learn that though not in a literal prison, she, too, is enduring torment. Left alone in Radegund to raise their three children, she labors tirelessly as the hostility of the other villagers continues to grow. At one point another woman charges her with a sickle out in the wheat fields. One might expect that such a portrait of moral resilience by Franz and Fani in the face of abject evil would come across as inspiring. Certainly the resonance between the anti-immigration screed of the town’s mayor and the fascistic reactions to our contemporary migrant crisis, to take one example, isn’t lost on the film, but Franz’s firm refusal hardly feels presented as a palatable answer to any of our problems.
Malick’s specific style of shooting and editing his films, especially the recent ones, can be defined by its perpetual sense of motion: his camera, usually mounted on a Steadicam, is always roving, dancing alongside his characters as they pace around rooms and twirl through fields; these elaborate tracking shots are then often chopped up into swirling montages that defy any notion of continuity taught in film schools. A Hidden Life is, from its first moments, noticeably stiller. There is a different sense of motion that propels the film forward, that of divine fate. This is ultimately a Christ narrative, with Franz as the central martyr. Characters are repeatedly glimpsed in tunnels, and indeed it’s as if the narrative is one long shaft, with Franz, compelled by his faith, slowly crawling towards his own inevitable execution at the end of it. In one scene he argues with a bishop that God gave us free will in order to stand against that which is wrong, but in exercising that power, he paradoxically loses his freedom, and seals his fate.
The film closes with a quote from Middlemarch which argues that “the growing good of the world is dependent on unhistoric acts,” from individuals like Franz, who “lived faithfully a hidden life.” And certainly the film, as well as the notably religious Malick, seems in awe of the resilient piety and sacrifice of this largely unknown man. Consider the crucial conversation between Franz and a man who paints church ceilings: the painter questions his own profession, struggling to paint the life of Christ as it was not one he had lived, nor one he truly understood. “I help people look up from those pews and dream,” the painter says. “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did.” With this, Malick does actually manage to expand the scope of his film beyond a portrait of Jägerstätter; subtly tying together the tribulations of Christ, the Third Reich’s genocide, and, implicitly, the return of Fascism that we’re seeing in the world today. But looming over all of this is still that understanding that we are not all like Franz, we cannot all endure what he did –– and should we? Franz is repeatedly reminded by those around him that no one will know of his act, that it will do nothing to halt the spread of Fascism. And while they’re wrong about the former –– we are watching a film about him, after all –– the latter strikes one as disturbingly difficult to refute. Was Franz’s suffering, and the lifelong pain he thus inflicted on his family, worth it? Malick likely has his own answer to that question, but his film allows its viewers to ponder it for themselves.