Film Review – A Hidden Life
A Hidden Life
What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to do the right thing? We often remember great acts of valor, of sweeping gestures that can shift the tides of civilizations. These people are forever planted into history in textbooks, statues, and museums. But is a hero remembered for their deeds or their legacy? It’s far harder to stand up for what is right when a person’s decision will have little to no effect on what will be. And yet, in a way, that makes their sacrifice far more important – they stand not to save society, but to save their very souls.
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019) is a masterful look at a man who stood strong for his convictions against overwhelming adversity. Malick, the great auteur of sweeping camerawork and majestic landscapes, returns with his most focused work since The Tree of Life (2011). You’ll see the usual Malick visual stamps – the vast open fields, characters walking through tall grass, the balance between the natural and spiritual, etc. But unlike his most recent efforts, Malick has decided to return to where he operates best: within the framework of a period piece. It’s here where he can manipulate his narrative toward a mythical realm. And while his writing and direction does have a free-floating feel, make no mistake about it: Malick does not waver from telling a solid, true life story.
At first glance, our main character, Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), seems like a man of little renown. He lives a simple life as a peasant farmer, high up in the Austrian mountains, with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and children. But this is during WWII, and in time the storms of war invade their little version of Eden. First are the rumors of France falling to the Nazis, then the appearance of Nazi soldiers taking donations for the war effort, and then finally the official draft notice, ordering Franz and others to join the Third Reich and swear an oath to Adolph Hitler. But Franz, hearing of the terrible crimes of Hitler’s regime, cannot find it in himself to join a cause he does not believe in, and thus becomes a conscientious objector.
Malick makes his stance quite clear: this is one of his most religious efforts and easily his most political. Franz’s unwavering faith puts him up against the majority, despite the fact that his society may actually benefit if Hitler’s side won the war. With his tall frame, strong facial features, and slick brunette hair, Franz could be the prototypical Aryan soldier. But he refuses to give his allegiance and soon becomes an outcast in his own village. His neighbors pass by raising their arms proclaiming “Heil, Hitler!” His family becomes a target of ridicule, with Franziska having to protect herself and their children from jeers and insults. Franz is questioned why he must take a stance, that it will do no good for himself and his family and will cause no major social change. He gets pressured by authorities (including his local priests) to bend the knee – that saying the words is merely a formality.
But is it? Is what Franz does an act of pride or faith? Should he just go along with the crowd even though he knows that it is wrong? For a movie that takes place more than half a century ago, Malick presents it with the bite of a modern satire. In a time where division and hate are at dangerously high levels, where zealots and white supremacists make their presence known under the false guise of Christianity, A Hidden Life comes like an act of deviance against the established order. Where The Tree of Life is about the emergence of grace, A Hidden Life examines grace in the midst of uncertainty and fear. Franz isn’t trying to be heroic, and in the grand scale of WWII his contributions are less remembered compared to more notable names (i.e. Oskar Schindler). But if Franz were to give in and compromise, what would that mean for his own morality? Would the God he so loves and cherishes do the same?
The editing (Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones) causes the three-hour run time to flash by, incorporating the impressionistic, collage-like structure inherent in Malick’s recent style. The early sequences take place high in Franz’s misty mountain home. The second half shifts to Berlin, where Franz is arrested and put on trial for treason, all the while questioned over his motivations. Jorg Widmer takes over director of photography duties from long time Malick collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki. Widmer doesn’t so much adopt Lubezki’s visual approach as he anchors it. Where Lubezki’s camera floated and spun with characters like an omniscient presence, Widmer’s camera is firmly held to the ground, appropriate for the type of material he’s covering.
A Hidden Life reminds me of two recent films about faith and resistance – oddly enough both star Andrew Garfield. In Hacksaw Ridge (2016), he played a soldier that refused to fire a weapon and instead worked as a medic rescuing injured comrades. In Silence (2016), he is a Jesuit priest put under extreme physical and mental torture to commit apostasy and abandon his faith. Franz is like a combination of both characters, struggling to find strength in silence against forces pushing against him. Only through written correspondence with Franziska (presented through voiceover) does Franz find the will to move forward, even when death is imminent. Their love is the beating heart of the film, and their final interaction is a showcase of expert acting and emotional resonance.
There is no other artist like Terrence Malick. He stands on a pedestal all his own, America’s most philosophical and spiritual filmmaker. A Hidden Life is an extraordinary film about an ordinary man. Its story is a heavy one, but Malick ends on a hopeful note. The smallest gestures of humanity ring just as true as the bold actions of courage. The tiniest efforts to make the world a better place reverberate through space and time. Franz Jagerstatter was a single person who made a decision that cost him dearly but earned him the right to be called a hero. This is cinema of the highest order.