A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick's trademark roving, lyrical visuals prove a perfect fit for this true World War II tale about an Austrian farmer-turned-conscientious objector.
January 30, 2020
As a renowned lover of rolling hills, scenic greenery, constantly roving camerawork and breathy voiceover that borders on whispering, Terrence Malick recreates the Second World War with splendour. Such an approach proved moving and powerful in 1998's The Thin Red Line, where the writer/director intertwined war's pain, suffering and senselessness with many a glimpse of nature's wonders — and while the filmmaker sticks with his usual tactics in A Hidden Life, this couldn't be a more different movie. That comment fits Malick's tenth feature in many ways, actually. All his familiar aesthetic trademarks remain in place, because there's no teaching this veteran new tricks. And yet, his highly polarising style has never felt more purposeful. Nearly half a century into his career, Malick asks the same question about life that he has since 1973's Badlands, pondering how anyone finds beauty, love and grace amid continual chaos — and yet it has never been as urgent, poignant and touching as it is here.
Telling of an Austrian farmer conscripted to fight for the Third Reich, A Hidden Life's true tale is a perfect match for Malick — and for the query that's driven everything from his Palme d'Or-winner The Tree of Life to the SXSW-set Song to Song. Living quietly in the mountain village of St. Radegund in 1939, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) are happy toiling in the fields, doting on their three daughters and being part of a close-knit community. But, although their bliss remains unchanged when the war first breaks out, history dictates that it can't stay that way. While he stomachs being forced to attend military training, albeit barely, Franz won't pledge allegiance to Hitler. All Austrian soldiers are required to make that oath, so his rejection earns the attention of Nazi higher-ups. His neighbours pressure him to conform, treating him and his family as outcasts for daring to defy the status quo. Still, even when called to active service, then arrested and sent to a Berlin prison, Franz won't waver.
Malick doesn't skirt around Franz's motivations, not that an excuse for resisting any brutal fascist regime should ever be required. As contemplated in long letters to Fani that are based on real texts — as well as in chats with his local mayor (Jürgen Prochnow), plus with priests and bishops (including Tobias Moretti and Michael Nyqvist) — the conscientious objector can't reconcile Hitler's ideology with his own Catholic faith. To everyone except his family, that makes him a traitor. While it shouldn't come as a surprise, it's still perturbing to see so many push for his blind adherence to such an abhorrent cause. Equally unnerving: the fury with which his village turns on Fani and their children. And, though falling into a completely different category, Franz's actions are also unsettling in their own way, because the ultimate cost of his refusal isn't just incarceration but execution.
That grave truth lingers over A Hidden Life, even in the film's most idyllic moments. Spending ample time at the Jägerstätters' picturesque property, revelling in its calm surroundings, and communing with its human and animal inhabitants, Malick's feature frequently proves peaceful, harmonious and sumptuous — which only makes Franz's plight all the more devastating. Viewers should expect as much from the director, given his reliance upon his trusty stylistic flourishes. While this is a rare war movie that eschews the brutality of the battlefield, just as its protagonist does, Malick laps up every aspect of Franz's rural existence, and of his loving relationship with Fani, all to emphasise exactly what the farmer is putting at stake. It would be so easy for the beleaguered Austrian to say what he's asked, serve as he's required and return home to those he adores. Doing so would save his life, and he has such obvious reasons to acquiesce. But Franz isn't willing to put himself before his beliefs, and Fani would never make him do so.
Accordingly, although its conflict remains spiritual, philosophical and existential rather than physical, A Hidden Life is as weighty as any blood-soaked account of combat — and as affecting. Thanks to its endlessly roaming, circling frames, as lensed by The Tree of Life alum Jörg Widmer, Malick's film immerses viewers in both the best and worst of Franz's experiences. Always restless in a visual sense, it's just as jittery and absorbing emotionally, which any movie about a man sticking to his principles while facing death should be. Indeed, it's difficult to see how any other approach could do such a tale justice. Amongst a cast that also includes Matthias Schoenaerts (Kursk), Franz Rogowski (Transit) and the late, great Bruno Ganz, Diehl and Pachner clearly relish Malick's freewheeling ways, with their soulful performances helping boil this story down to its lyrical, poetic core. Told with ruminative eyes and a probing heart, this isn't just an account of courage and conviction, but of truly knowing the price of everything that's worthwhile in this life.