A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick has never really been my style. I remember seeing The Thin Red Line back in 1998 before I could really call myself a complete cinephile and liking it, but the rest of his films, whether it’s The Tree of Life or Badlands or To the Wonder or Knight of Cups or Song to Song never did it for me. Everything always felt too meandering, too dreamlike in a way that felt unsatisfying. At some point, I just chalked it up to a clash of styles. Malick works for a lot of film lovers and critics, but not for me. So as I was finishing up my 2019 awards consideration viewing, the three hour Malick epic A Hidden Life was staring me down like the barrel of a gun. I knew I had to watch it, and the generous screener policy of Fox Searchlight meant I could watch it in the comfort of my home. But after so many bad experiences with Malick films, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
Here’s the thing, though. A Hidden Life is incredible. It’s easily one of the best films of 2019.
Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are.
A Hidden Life is based on true events. It tells the story of Franz Jaegerstaetter (August Diehl) an Austrian farmer conscripted into the Nazi army during World War 2. After going through basic training and orientation, Franz returns disillusioned to his farm and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), hoping to live out his days in quiet solitude with his family. He sees the Nazi regime as evil men, and could not in good conscience fight on their side. He is not shy about sharing these views, ostracizing him from his community. When the war intensifies and he is called to serve, he refuses to pledge allegiance to Hitler and is arrested for insolence and treason. While incarcerated, he must decide between his pride and beliefs and the freedom that giving up on them will give him while his wife carries on in Austria without him, their only link a series of letters they write to each other.
I think I tend to struggle with Malick films in part due to their well-known abstract approach, which often eschews a more conventional narrative for something experiential, with heavy reliance on narration, odd editing patterns and handheld wide angle cinematography. All of those traits are present in A Hidden Life, but the story is far more concrete than we’ve seen from him for some time, tempering and foundationalizing some of his more abstract flourishes. I’ve never doubted Malick’s power as a filmmaker, as a director capable of breathtaking visual splendor; he’s just rarely made films that have caught my attention. And the story of A Hidden Life succeeds in grabbing my attention, which then puts me in the position to let it all wash over with ease.
It helps that the content is particularly prescient given our current political climate. In an era of Donald Trump, an era where the United Kingdom just doubled down on their xenophobic Conservative leadership, we’ve seen an undeniable rise of Nazi-esque fascism (and sometimes actual straight-up Nazi fascism) that have given World War 2 films a new dimension of relevance in the 21st century. It’s notable that Fox Searchlight has made two of these films in the fall movie season, but where Taika Waititi’s garish Jojo Rabbit aims for a far more simplified comedic satire that attempts to tell a heavy story and generally fails, A Hidden Life gets at something deeper and far more satisfying. It’s a common refrain among those who lived through brutal regimes that they did not believe in the cause and were just doing their job, just doing what would keep them alive. But that’s not good enough for Franz and it’s not good enough for Malick. A Hidden Life takes this concept on directly, asking a simple question: What is the cost of bravery and integrity in the face of powerful evil?
Late in the film (and that’s saying something, as A Hidden Life uses all of its three hours), Franz is given one of many chances at making it all go away. He can just sign the declaration of allegiance to Hitler and be given a small post somewhere far from the war itself. He can be free with just a flick of a pen. And when the war is over, he can return to his wife and family His lawyer pleads with him: “God doesn’t care what you say; only what’s in your heart.” Just sign it and know that it’s not true. He can join the supposed legions of Germans who just did what they were told. But for Franz, your actions speak just as loud as, if not more so, than your words. What good is being a conscientious objector if you don’t object when called on your beliefs? It’s the moral climax of a film that has seen countless people telling Franz to just give in and take the easy way out, proof that to Malick, a cause can be worthy enough to become a martyr.
It helps that August Diehl is such a magnetic presence in the film. Most Americans would recognize him from one specific place: his memorable role as the Nazi officer who duels Michael Fassbender with words and actions in the basement bar in Inglorious Basterds. He was a menacing presence there, fully in control of a powder keg of a situation, and more than happy to go down with the ship if it meant taking some traitors and spies with him. Here, he’s almost the diametrical opposite, quiet, meek and measured though no less sure of his beliefs. His hair swoops and austere cheekbones are the perfect traits for cinematographer Joerg Widmer to exploit, conveying his stoic grace, his love for his family, his beliefs and willingness to die for them. He’s perfectly at home with Malick’s love of narration, using it as his only opportunity to communicate with the love of his life. It’s a stirring performance, the sort of leading role that the movie would fall apart without.
It all comes together with staggering beauty and a keen depth of feeling. Malick’s sensibilities can work so well when he has something to grasp and keep his potential for navel-gazing grounded. He has the room to roam throughout A Hidden Life, but compared to the likes of To the Wonder and Song to Song, his focus feels razor sharp here. It’s a morality play with tremendous passion and empathy, with wonderful music and cinematography, a fully realized piece of cinema that ignites the senses and the mind in equal measure. Malick can be a tough pill to swallow. I know that as much as anyone. I was skeptical upon beginning A Hidden Life, but some three hours later, that skepticism was long gone. A Hidden Life speaks to the capabilities of cinema as an art form, a beautiful treatise on the importance of integrity in the face of the evils of the world. Franz may not have won the battle, but he is a symbol for something bigger, and with the help of A Hidden Life, that symbol will continue to endure.