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.