Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Bruno Ganz
Length: 2h 54m
“You have a duty to the Fatherland.”
Over the course of five decades, director Terrence Malick has become one of the most enigmatic characters in American cinema. A former Rhodes scholar and professor of philosophy of MIT, Malick tried his hand at filmmaking in the 1970s and directed two New Hollywood classics in Badlands and Days of Heaven, before taking a 20-year break from directing. Legendary for his lengthy post-production processes and bouts of inactivity, the 2010s has seen an uncharacteristic flurry of releases from Malick – he released five feature films over the course of the decade, compared to just four in the previous 38 years of his career. Malick has also managed to attract A-list talent such as Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman in these five features, and his ruminations on the trappings of modern decadence while embracing digital as a medium have lent his late period films a very distinctive vision.
A Hidden Life is a return to Malick’s earlier works, both aesthetically and in terms of greater fidelity to narrative chronology. As is typical of his filmography (which contains one of the more immediately recognizable aesthetics in arthouse circles) A Hidden Life combines a roving handheld camera, spectacular compositions of nature filmed exclusively with natural light, and an associative editing style that slips in and out of characters’ stream of consciousness. The story is set in motion when Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), compelled by his religious beliefs, refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler as World War II rages across the continent. He and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) are subjected to reprimands and remonstrations of their fellow villagers before his faith is ultimately tested upon his arrest for refusing a draft summons, and trial for treason by a colonel (Bruno Ganz). Jägerstätter may seem superficially similar to Private Witt, the pacifist protagonist of Malick’s other World War II movie The Thin Red Line. Unlike The Thin Red Line, however, A Hidden Life is a character study rather than a sweeping ensemble drama, and ostensibly transforms into a modern-day Passion of Jägerstätter, whom the Catholic Church beatified in 2007.
In contrast to many films on Nazism and World War II, A Hidden Life functions as a conservative critique of fascism from inside the regime. In the film’s first hour, some of the finest work of his career, Malick focuses on how fascism separates the individual from family and religion in order to recast them as units of the state. It’s unsurprising that he chooses these two subjects to focus on – family and religion have been central preoccupations throughout the five decades of Malick’s career. The film treats central questions of resistance and morality in a philosophically dense (but never opaque) manner – in one scene, Jägerstätter muses “if God gives us free will, we are responsible for what we do.” It’s an unsurprising approach, given Malick’s previous career as a scholar of philosophy (ironically, he is best known in academic circles for translating a work of Martin Heidegger, who enthusiastically endorsed the Nazi regime). The first section wrestles with these questions and critiques, juxtaposing breath-taking images of the Jägerstätters’ idyllic farm nestled in the Alps against the harsh contours of a militarized fascist state.
As A Hidden Life progresses, it becomes clear that Jägerstätter’s resolve will be tested against society and the state alike, and this shift is where the film transforms into a passion. A discussion of “true saints” with Jägerstätter’s priest is peppered through the middle hour as his fellow villagers chastise the beleaguered protagonist for refusing to endorse the regime. Appeals to patriotism and nationalism follow – the burgermeister roars that “our world is turning into a department store” and fascism is the only way to counter this decadence, while his bishop (complicit to the regime) reminds him “you have a duty to the Fatherland.” When Jägerstätter is transported to prison after refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler, his spirit and will is tested as he is subjected to increased mental and physical cruelty. Army prison officers frequently remind him that his father was killed in action during World War I, and his inaction as the sole male heir does his family a disservice. It’s interesting, in fact, to note that Jägerstätter’s relationship to other male figures in A Hidden Life are almost entirely defined through authority figures within institutions. He is castigated by members of the clergy, military, and the burgermeister alike, but a personal resolve and fidelity to religious beliefs colour the film and the character of Jägerstätter.
A Hidden Life boasts the typical aesthetic brilliance one would expect from a Terrence Malick film, and a more rigorous narrative recalls his earlier works (especially in contrast to 2015’s Knight of Cups, his most formally experimental and challenging work). Malick’s pitches Jägerstätter’s nonviolent resistance as a battle between tradition and modernity – Jägerstätter’s simple pastoral life represents an inherent good against an absence of the just in the Nazi regime. Speaking on the legacy of the twentieth century, intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin declared it “the bloodiest in human history.” In A Hidden Life, Malick synthesises the horrors of modernity to create a spectacular modern day passion.