Terrence Malick is the kind of filmmaker whose ideas don’t quite develop in as much as they are gently presented on us as full-fledged philosophies. We don’t really witness the the inciting incident of his characters for the change came within them, but we see snippets of their lives as their beliefs are put to the test, challenged, twisted, and we hope the protagonists stay true to themselves. It was so with the stoic rebels of Badlands, it was so with the ethereal soldiers of The Thin Red Line, so it is in A Hidden Life.
In many ways A Hidden Life is Malick’s most accessible film. Often cryptic and too spiritual for the sake of mass audiences, his work is characterised by gorgeous nature shots accompanied by poetic narration that tangibly connects God to our soul to the planet Earth. These are long movies, with minimal plot and virtually no action. They go at their own pace, like they’re a poem written by a lonely priest.
So it was a surprise that his new film had the semblance of a large central problem, one that builds the core and purpose of the 2 hours and 54 minutes it encompasses.
Set in a small village by the Austrian mountains, we follow Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his new wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). Strong members of their little community, Franz and Fani build their family, tend to their crops, attend the church, help their fellow neighbours and participate in every town tradition of the year. But with the rise of Nazism comes a rift between Franz and the rest of society, as he finds himself at odds with an ideology that doesn’t share his values. After a mandatory stint in the army, where he didn’t see combat, Franz becomes a conscientious objector with the support of his wife. Suddenly the Jägerstätters are not welcome in their own community.
Malick doesn’t try to develop Franz’s creed. He is who he is, and we want him to stay that way. Instead we see how the pressure progressively mounts on him and his wife. Every new character is given their own scene to try and convince Franz to stand by his country, from the Mayor who only wants the best for him, the priest who seems to understand Franz’s point of view but urges him to think of his family (“what good will did this do to your wife and daughters?”). There’s a tremendous scene with a judge (Bruno Ganz’s last role) who requests a private audience with Franz to question him about his intentions but gets no concrete answers – later he sits in the same chair Franz was before in a childish attempt to see the world through his eyes.
These moments are shot in the most impressionistic way. While the narration is always in English, the preaching and arguing is in a loud and (at least for me) indecipherable German. Usually there’s only one character speaking while the other paces up and down in silence as if trying to avoid listening to all the hate. There aren’t a lot of dialogues but these strange monologues muffled James Newton Howard’s marvellous score, and framed in Malick’s now signature steady-wide-angle-cam (this time the cinematographer is not the usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, but Jörg Widmer who worked before as camera operator in The Tree Of Life).
A Hidden Life forces us to pose that quintessential question – if I was there, I wouldn’t have participated. It forces us to decide if we would be as resilient as Franz. How far do we go to stand by our morals, and is it worth going the furthest even if no one’s there see? For is an idea still an idea if it dies with us? Or even better… does it really die with us?
Near the end Malick captures his most earnest moment since he got a soldier to face his own judgement for killing a man. In here a row of men sentenced to death are given a piece of paper and pencil to write their last thoughts, a startled prisoner asks “what should I write?”. Later he breaks down in one last moment of brotherly comfort. The truth is, Malick, himself a storyteller, respects this introspection more than anything else.
A Hidden Life is an interior struggle that we, as the audience, can witness and understand, but may not completely and 100% grasp. The fact that Malick managed to translate that into a film is nothing short of a miracle.
Saying this is his easiest film to digest since Badlands isn’t a lot to most moviegoers, but everyone should give it a try. Its calm and candour soothes and contrasts with the layers of The Tree of Life. But it’s also, in it’s own humane way, a kind film, and we’ve been needing one of those for awhile.