Early on in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, we see what should be a carefree moment for an Austrian farming family. Playing a game, a blindfolded Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) tries to find his wife and kids, who circle around him hitting little cans and trying not to get caught. By this point, we’ve only heard vague rumblings of the war that will pull Franz away from a happily secluded existence in the mountains with his young daughters and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner). But the way Malick captures it, we feel the unease gathering: the camera is just a little too low, the lens just a little too wide, the silence — punctuated by gently rattling cans — ever so ominous. It’s a subtle layer of meaning over a glimpse of the everyday, and it offers a fine example of Malick’s uniquely cinematic ability to take the most unexpected, throwaway moment and give it new emotional power. An instance of play becomes an intimation of apocalypse.
A Hidden Life is based on a very real story, that of Franz Jägerstätter, a devout Austrian farmer who, upon being called to serve in the army, refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler. The film begins in 1939, with a newsreel montage establishing Hitler’s consolidation of power. Franz lives in the small German Alpine village of St. Radegund with his aforementioned wife Fani and their young daughters. Spending his days getting by with a meager living cutting fields, baling hay, and raising livestock. Franz is drafted into the German army but doesn’t see combat. But he’s called up again in 1943, a point at which he’s now a father, and Germany has killed millions and begun to undertake a campaign of genocide that German people were dimly aware of, Franz now decides his conscience won’t permit him to serve in combat. He objects to war generally, but this particular one especially. It’s a decision that’s not easy to make, and Malick’s film delivers a piercing sense of what it costs him. The effect on Franz’s marriage is complex: apparently he was secular when it came to politics until he met Fani, and became principled and devote after marrying her. Now she’s in the rocky position of suggesting that Franz not give into the same values he’s proud of having absorbed from her, and that she’s proud of having taught him by way of example. If Franz stands for what he believes, he’ll end up in jail, tortured, maybe dead, depriving her of a husband, a father to their children, and the income to the household, and subjecting the remaining family to public scrutiny by villagers who worship Hitler like a God, and treat everyone who doesn’t terribly.
The situation is one that a lesser film would milk for easy feelings of moral superiority, but A Hidden Life isn’t interested in button pushing morality. Instead it uses its story as a launching pad for questions meant to spark introspection in its viewers. Like: Is it morally acceptable to allow one’s spouse and children to suffer by sticking to one’s beliefs? Is it a sin to act in self-preservation? Which self-preserving acts are acceptable, and which are defined as cowardice? We see other people trying to talk Franz into giving up, and there’s often a hint that his willingness to suffer makes them feel guilty about their preference for comfort. Early on when Franz discusses his situation with the local priest (Tobias Moretti), he’s not-too-subtly warned that it’s a bad idea to oppose the state, and that most religious leaders support Hitler; the effect that has on the priest oh-so evident. A long, provocative scene near the middle of the film — at which Franz is in military jail, being regularly humiliated and abused by the guards — a lawyer (Alexander Fehling) asks Franz if it really matters that he’s not carrying a rifle and wearing a uniform when he still has to shine Nazi soldiers’ shoes and fill up their sandbags. Everywhere Franz turns, he encounters people who agree with him and say they’re cheering for him but can’t or won’t take the additional step of publicly refusing to yield the Nazi tide.
The film’s spirit of generosity is often so great that it even allows some of the Nazis to experience moments of doubt, even though they’re never translated into positive action. That’s probably seen most when a judge (the late, great Bruno Ganz, in one of his final roles) invites Franz into his office, questions him about his decisions, and thinks hard about them, with a disturbed expression. After Franz gets up and leaves the room, the judge takes Franz’s seat and looks at his hands on his knees, as if he’s trying to imagine being Franz. Though A Hidden Life can be quite intimate, there’s still an epic quality to it. Beyond its three-hour runtime, what makes this film epic is the extraordinary attention that Malick and his cast and crew pay to the mundane context surrounding the hero’s choices. Like many of Malick’s works, A Hidden Life notes the physical details of the existence, whether it’s the rhythmic movements of scythes cutting grass in a field, the shadows left on walls by sunlight passing through trees, or the way a young sleeping child’s legs and feet dangles as her father carries her. Almost in the vein of Days of Heaven, a great film about labor, Malick repeatedly returns to the routine action of work letting simple tasks play out in longer takes without music (sometimes without cuts), and giving us a sense of how personal political struggles are integrated into the ordinariness of life (the aforementioned music or score by Thomas Newton Howard is extraordinary).
There are countless fleeting moments in A Hidden Life that are heartbreaking because they’re so recognizable. One smaller fleeting performance comes from Franz Rogowski as Waldlan, a fellow soldier who also becomes a conscientious objector. Together, Rogowski and Malick establish the profound kind, gentleness of this man, with his sad, dark eyes and soft voice, and an imagination that leads him to monologue on red and white wine, and pose two straw men meant for bayonet practice as if they were lovers in a field. It’s a performance with small screen-time but Rogowski makes every minute of it, delivering deeply captivating and wrenching work that’s one of the most striking supporting performances I’ve seen all year.
Every minute of A Hidden Life seemingly brings a new revelation, nearly always snuck into a scene whatever way possible, its full power registering often in the moment or even heavily in hindsight. They’re all revelations and moments that are captured brilliantly by Malick and his cinematographer Jörg Widmer (who was the camera-operator and second-unit cinematographer on the director’s past few projects). Throughout they often utilize extreme wide angles, distorting the outer edges of the frame and heightening distances of everything in it, turning St. Radegund into a spiritual battlefield. The green fields curving in the valley and the ever-present horizon, filled with little houses and town spires and forests and clouds and mountains behind mountains, every frame often feeling as if it encompasses all of creation.
Terrence Malick doesn’t give interviews, but I don’t think we’d really need on to understand why he would create and release a film of this nature in 2019, at a time when the United States is being torn apart over the issue of obedient support of an authority figure, and have the dialogue alternate German with English (for most of the time). But A Hidden Life is rich and sturdy enough to transcend the contemporary one-to-one comparisons that it is sure to invite — and it’s not as if we haven’t seen this scenario in other places, before and after WWII, or will never see it again. The social dynamics at play here are timeless. In many ways, A Hidden Life almost plays as a career summation for Malick, practically seeing him combine his stylistic elements from his fifty-year career into one bold work. We also see that in the way’s that the Jägerstätter family’s misery often connects to that of many other protagonists in Malick’s works. The rumbling buzz of bombers passing over St. Radegund are practically of a piece with the arrival of the American warships in Malick’s The Thin Red Line to take Pvt. Witt away from his pacifist paradise and into the war zone, and the English ships signaling the impending colonization of the Powhatan lands in The New World, and the shots of cops and Pinkertons creeping up on the fugitive heroes of Badlands. The summation of it all more clear as the movie marinates.
Though I’ve spoken on it before, an early scene in which Franz visits a church painter is one that, maybe, struck me the hardest and likely serves as Malick’s most clear statement about what he’s trying to do or say in A Hidden Life: “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,” he says. “They would have murdered those whom they adore,” he scoffs, and we suspect that he’s correct. Not just in 2019, but really at any place in time, we shouldn’t be so smug as to assume that we would always know the right thing to do, or even be brave enough to do it, Malick seems to be saying. A true act of resistance should fracture our universe wide open. Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a soul grasping experience; a spiritual journey of solitude and resilience brought to life through light and sound; one that doesn’t transcend cinema, but truly sanctifies it.