Terrence Malick’s majestic A Hidden Life is orchestrated around dialectical clashes — the physical vs the metaphysical, inner integrity vs external honour, and individual rights vs civic duty. The inspiration for the film was the true life account of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who steadfastly refused to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler after his country became occupied by the Third Reich. Malick’s film begins during the early period of the invasion, painting a portrait of a rural village increasingly consumed by the ideology of fascism as it is enforced through a vast array of economic, religious, and political mechanisms. Some figures give into the rhetoric of the Nazis enthusiastically — such as the mayor, who giddily speaks before crowds about the economic stability that will be restored to the country if the immigrants are purged — while others are coerced into endorsing the cause through threats, like a local parish priest who faces the possibility of incarnation and the disbanding of his church if he speaks out against the Anschluss.
But do your outward declarations matter if your inner principles remain noble? That’s one of the quandaries at the centre of A Hidden Life, verbalized in a fellow religious devotee who assures Jägerstätter, “God doesn’t care about what you say; it’s about what’s in your heart.” This is the attitude adopted by Jägerstätter’s priest, who insists that though he may support the Nazis on the outside, his heart belongs to God, and the Holy Father will understand the concessions he must make in the name of self-preservation. For Jägerstätter, however, the situation is not so easily resolved; for him, to be a good Catholic means not only a spiritual devotion to God, but also to refuse to be complicit in the spread of evil (Jägerstätter refuses to speak of Hitler by name, instead only referring to him as ‘The Antichrist’). In his eyes, the apathy of the Church is a heinous sin, leading him to abandon his social duty as a Roman Catholic to obey the will of his religious leaders.
Jägerstätter becomes a pariah as his tight-knit community increasingly spirals into intolerance and brutality; he is labelled a traitor to his homeland, a failure as a father, and a disgrace to his religion. Still, he manages to resist for years, becoming the only member of Radegund to vote against the Anschluss in the April 10 plebiscite, and deferring military service on four separate occasions. In an effort to maintain his conviction despite widespread pressure to relent, he throws himself into the study of the saints, and begins to perceive his life through the prism of the religious martyrs that populate the Catholic tradition. Repeatedly, Jägerstätter gazes at the iconography of church murals in order to strengthen his moral conviction. At one point, one of the religious painters working on the ceiling of a chapel doubts his own ability to adequately represent the lives of the saints, when he himself has lived such a humble life. “Someday I’ll have the courage to venture,” he says. “Someday I’ll show them a true Christ.” And while this may be an idealistic fantasy to the painter, Jägerstätter truly internalizes this moral imperative, using it as guidance throughout the turmoil that awaits him.
Despite having the unquestioned support of his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), elements of doubt slowly creep into Jägerstätter’s mind. Are the hardships he and his family are being forced to endure evidence that God is absent, or is he being subjected to a Christ-like test of faith? Is his purity of spirit strong enough to bring about the salvation of his entire nation, or is his stubbornness simply the result of a selfish and narcissistic desire to ascend to the ranks of his idols? As he is repeatedly reminded, his act of resistance will have no concrete effect on the direction of the war effort; in fact, the Third Reich do everything in their power to suppress his voice and prevent the rest of the nation from being aware of his dissent (the local authorities refused to report his single vote against the Anschluss, out of fear that their small village of Radegund would be targeted if word of a rebel were to break out).
Jägerstätter risks having his wife and daughters face violent persecution and not being able to support themselves if he continues to resist taking the oath. A visit to his episcopate offers Jägerstätter no spiritual guidance, but instead adds to his sorrows, as the Bishop is too afraid of the consequences to openly discuss the issues at hand. The resigned Bishop instead stresses the importance of fulfilling his obligation towards civil authority. “You have duty to the fatherland,” he tells Jägerstetter, limply finding rationalization for the Church’s collaboration with the state, as well as its inability to openly condemn the most heinous ethical atrocity of the 20th century. Even though the supposedly ethical communities in which Jägerstetter was embedded permit the act of fighting for the German army as morally acceptable, his own internal sense of injustice leads him to continue his personal resistance against an inherently immoral political body; that this is an act of individual moral reasoning not encouraged by any external force informs the sense of otherworldly goodness with which Malick frames him.
Eventually, Jägerstätter is conscripted into the Wehrmacht army. Although willing to train at the Enns garrison, he still refuses to salute Hitler, and as a result is sent to a war prison in Berlin, where he is subject to torture and ridicule from the guards. “It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it,” he concludes. The imprisoned Jägerstätter is visited by clergymen, attorneys, and politicians, who each attempt to convince him that apostasy is the only rational option in order to avoid execution. As Jägerstätter becomes increasingly alienated from every comfort of the material world, he gains spiritual sustenance from a deep sense of connection with an immaterial creator — an impression of the divine which, as always in Malick, is expressed through the grandeur of the natural world. “When you give up the idea of survival at any cost, a new light opens,” he remarks, expressing his strengthening devotion to a being which exists beyond the realms of the physical. Malick cuts to shots of small tufts of grass growing in the cracks in the concrete which lines the prison yard and thin rays of sunlight seeping through Jägerstätter’s cell window — two of the few elements of beauty in an environment of oppressive ugliness.
In his confined isolation, Jägerstätter’s only source of comfort is his own absolute belief in the essential rectitude of his actions. To eschew all material comforts in the name of remaining true to basic notions of right and wrong is a heroic act, and Malick’s filmmaking rightfully mythologizes Jägerstätter into a modern-day saint, imbuing his story with the grandeur of a parable. That A Hidden Life is an explicitly religious movie has made it the target of a lot of puerile ridicule, but there is nothing simplistic about Malick’s treatment of the Catholic faith; it neither affirms nor denies the existence of God, and it doesn’t shy away from critiquing the systemic problems of the church as an institution. The awe expressed by Malick lies in the saintly capacity of a deontological moral agent in a community that has turned to immorality. That Jägerstätter remains committed to his principles while knowing that he will not gain any external recognition for his actions is crucial to the film’s conception of him as a heroic figure, and this fact is reflected in the George Eliot passage from which Malick’s film draws its title, which is worth quoting in full:
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Malick raised eyebrows when he announced a few years ago that A Hidden Life would mark his return to a more classical form of storytelling following the extreme experimentation of To The Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song. A Hidden Life certainly marks a turning point in Malick’s filmography, though to say it is any way more conventional would be hugely misleading. There is a newfound focus on the physicality of corporeal experience that has been pointedly absent from his recent work, in which ethereal, immaterial images float in and out of the ether. But Malick remains a montage artist, a filmmaker who communicates ideas and sensations primarily through the associative linking of shots.
There is nothing resembling a traditional ‘scene’ in A Hidden Life, which radically fragments concrete incidents into vibrant, evocative slices of time, then organize these pieces into an impressionistic, non-linear stream of imagery. Sometimes an entire month will be condensed into a few seconds of screen time, and at other points a seemingly minor moment will be stretched out for what seems like eternity. The perpetually roving camera is unmoored from any sense of traditional perspective, constantly wandering, searching for ways of shooting environments and situations so that they feel radically, ecstatically new. Human interactions are established through a series of gestures loaded with symbolic and emotional weight, expressing emotion through their thoughts via carefully choreographed, dance-like movements rather than classical dramaturgy. When Jägerstätter briefly returns from his training camp to reunite with Frani, Malick knows that the feeling of elation is too grand to be consumed in the standard grammar of continuity style; instead, he cuts to a rapid series of shots of the pair playfully touching, tumbling, and running in the grass.
Malick’s montage is sensual and intellectual in equal measure, delighting in the sensory experience of the natural world as it simultaneously puts into motion a complex series of theological, ethical, and ideological debates. The snatches of voice-over are employed to interact with these images, rather than to dominate them, putting into play a series of ruminations and questions that guide the viewer through this vast visual symphony. And so A Hidden Life may represent a return to the mode of grand historical epic which dominated Malick’s so-called ‘golden era’ (which generally is believed to run from Days of Heaven through to The New World or Tree of Life, depending on who you ask). The sophistication with which ideas are articulated through cutting is deeply indebted to the free-form experimentation of his late period work, and although there is a more concrete narrative framework here, the loose, improvisatory quality of Malick’s late films is still in full effect. The story, such as it is, follows a simple trajectory, thus allowing the film to wander, to search, to ruminate on a multitude of topics which emanate from the tragic case of Jägerstetter.
One of these salient themes is the ethical issue of portraying the Holocaust through fiction. Following Godard, Adorno, and Lanzmann, Malick seems to be of the belief that recreating images of the Holocaust on screen is obscene. As in Godard’s late work, Malick is deeply careful about conjuring imagery of the concentration camps, and does so through sophisticated means of suggestion. Godard (who infamously derided Spielberg for transforming images of the holocaust into a Hollywood thrill ride in Schindler’s List) has refined his essayistic work to the point that he can encapsulate the horrors of the camps in a single archival image of a scorched hand.
Malick similarly draws on archival footage to illustrate events he cannot bear to recreate himself, such as Hitler’s rise to power, Nuremberg rallies, and combat in Berlin. These images, which are integrated seamlessly into the film’s poetic audio-visual flow, necessarily establish a wider social context, while never registering as disrespectful recreations. Malick crucially refuses to dramatize the camps in A Hidden Life, but he evokes them through an equally powerful form of cinematic short-hand; at one point, the screen fades to black as the sound of a train overwhelms the soundtrack. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching moments in modern film.