TIFF19: A Hidden Life

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Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a powerful testament to faith. After making a trilogy of films that act more as tone poems than conventional narratives (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song), Malick has crafted his most straightforward narrative since The New World, and possibly even his debut feature, Badlands. However, Malick doesn’t jettison the elliptical editing and dancing camera that has become his signature style since The Tree of Life. He simply reins in his most experimental impulses in order to tell a chronological story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and a more concrete focus on character and narrative than he’s had in the past decade. 

The story follows Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who refused to swear allegiance to the Nazis during World War II and lost his life as a consequence. In its depiction of a man who rejects fascism in all its forms, and of a Christian who refuses to compromise his morality in order to get along in the world, A Hidden Life is both Malick’s most overtly Christian work as well as his most political. It’s a staggering work and instantly becomes one of the 21st century’s most profound meditations on religious faith.

Like all of Malick’s films, A Hidden Life is about how the loss of Eden and the Fall is played out in each individual’s life. Here, Eden is the beautiful village of Radegund, a farming community high in the Austrian Alps, where Franz and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), live alongside their three young daughters. In the film’s early moments, we see the grace of their edenic existence exemplified by Franz and Fani working in the fields against the breathtaking backdrop of the Alps, sharing a tender moment in the grass, or playing with their daughters. We hear lyrical narration from both Franz and Fani that recounts their courtship and affirms the blessings of each other in their lives. We don’t see fights or disagreements or Fani doing more work than Franz. Theirs is a shared, idyllic life, one that Malick delights in portraying through the roaming camera that sways with the characters and with classical symphonies overlaid on the soundtrack.

Paradise lasts until the swastika flies over their homeland and Franz is called up to serve in the war. Franz initially attends basic training, but he’s sent home before serving. However, his time at home doesn’t last as he’s eventually given marching orders. Franz refuses to swear the oath of allegiance to the Third Reich, and so he’s imprisoned. And eventually martyred.

Running nearly three hours in length, A Hidden Life is spent mainly focusing on Franz’s refusal to join the war effort and eventual imprisonment. In fragmentary scenes set throughout Radegund, we watch Franz as he witnesses the growing Nazi fervor in his village. In one moment, the village mayor (Martin Wuttke) goes on a drunken rant about immigrants and the death of the fatherland. In another, a fellow farmer gets into a brawl with Franz over his supposed cowardice. All throughout, Franz bears the indignity with patience, but immense frustration. He may restrain his anger, but he’s not immune to doubts and despair. He has secret conversations with others about the Nazis, pondering over the moral blindness of his fellow villagers and the Church’s complicity in fascism. Franz is always asking questions and never gets definitive answers, but he holds fast and suffers for it.

Fani suffers as well, but in a different way. When Franz is imprisoned, she’s turned into a pariah, ignored and avoided by her former friends and parishioners. She cannot get help to work the farm so she and her sister (Maria Simon) do their best to keep things moving in hopes of Franz being released back home. Particularly challenging is Franz’s widowed mother, who blames Fani for his newfound martyr complex. But Fani preserves, if only for her children and the deep love she has for Franz.

While A Hidden Life is a tale of suffering, it’s also a romance and a testament to marriage. Franz and Fani are a rockbed of love and fidelity, and their faith in each other upholds their faith in God and goodness. Malick makes clear that if they were not so unified they would not have withstood such indignity with their morals intact.

In the film’s final third, they send each other letters and we hear their words in voiceover (Malick referenced their actual letters when writing the script). Franz talks about his brotherhood with fellow prisoners, about the small ways of connecting and extending grace in a world that punishes men. He slips one man a morsel of bread or shares a meaningful gaze with another. He finds an old friend (Franz Rogowski) and sings quiet songs with him to hold back the darkness. But most of all, he talks of missing Fani and the girls, of the happy days of them together.

Back in Radegund, Fani toils the earth, her connection with the land affording her communion now that connection with her fellow villagers has been severed. She holds strong for the children. In one powerful sequence, she recounts in a letter her daughters’ various reactions to Franz’s absence, how they beg her to leave the door unlocked so dad can come in at night, or how one sleeps with his photograph at night, knowing it’ll protect her like he would. It’s hard not to watch this sequence and be overwhelmed by the film’s emotional power. The actors are marvellous, but it’s the way that the humanity of their performances combine with Malick’s mise-en-scene that makes the film so graceful.

As mentioned earlier, there’s a resonant political message to A Hidden Life that seems a new dimension to Malick’s work. To be clear, Malick has had political commentary in the past, most pointedly in Badlands and The Thin Red Line, but in those films, the commentary is oblique and a part of the historical setting. However, in A Hidden Life, certain scenes seem to be directly commenting on modern-day politics, such as the mayor’s rant about immigrants or Franz’s ponderings of what to do when your nation is run by bad men. Other moments indict the Church and its complicity in wrongdoing that goes against the teachings of Christ. Malick is not proscriptive, but the modern commentary is present and only goes to show how demonstrations of faith like Franz and Fani’s are not only remarkable in times like World War II. They remain necessary in the present.

Malick also utilizes some new formal techniques in addition to the elliptical editing, natural light, and dancing camera that has become emblematic of his work. In two key sequences with Franz, he uses POV: first to show Franz’s assault by a Nazi guard in prison, then to depict his final moments before execution. The POV achieves a different kind of transcendence than is usual in Malick’s work, because it doesn’t expand the world of the character beyond the limits of his personal experience, but instead it expands the viewer’s experience. It takes the viewer out of him or herself and puts them into Franz, expanding their perspective in the process. This union with Franz makes both Franz and the viewer a part of a bigger story and plays into the film’s passionate plea for moral righteousness that extends beyond the historical confines of the film and into the present day. Franz is taking up his cross as Christ did and as every Christian is meant to do. Identification with Christ is a part of the Christian journey. With A Hidden Life, Malick uses the powers of cinema to identify the viewer with Franz, and by extension, Christ, allowing the viewing process itself to become a kind of sacramental union.

The total effect of A Hidden Life is overwhelming, both on a sensory level and on a more profound, spiritual level. If you’re a Christian, it’s a moving experience of seeing faith lived out against all odds and in a way without pride or selfishness. But even for viewers with no interest in religion, the film is a powerful demonstration of the cost of martyrdom and the need for moral clarity in the face of evil. As the film and the George Elliot quote from Middlemarch referenced in the title make clear, “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 owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

9 out of 10

A Hidden Life (2019, USA/Germany)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jurgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, Martin Wuttke, Franz Rogowski, Maria Simon.