The painful beauty in Terrence Malick’s ‘A Hidden Life’

August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in "A Hidden Life" | Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

With “A Hidden Life,” the writer and director Terrence Malick set himself a bold and perhaps impossible task: using all the visual resources of film to represent faith itself, “evidence of things not seen.” This nearly three-hour hagiography of the Nazi resister Blessed Franz Jägerstätter refuses any visible success. In a time when even Christians often justify our religion on the grounds that it produces measurable outcomes like stable families or feelings of personal happiness, Malick gives us martyrdom: a protest against, among other things, positive outcome measurements. The “hidden life” of the title is not solely Jägerstätter’s but God’s.

The film’s first hour sets up an idyll in the Austrian farmhouse owned by Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner). Their marriage is the foundation of their lives, their arms intertwining as the camera lingers on their wedding rings.

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Any fictionalized hagiography has to balance the specific details of this life with the meaning it may hold for others. “A Hidden Life” falls far on the side of the general rather than the specific, in ways that damage the film’s political vision and its insight into character. Several aspects of Jägerstätter’s life that don’t make it into the film could have added both specificity and poignancy, like his childhood poverty, or his daughter born out of wedlock before he met Fani (we get only one vague allusion to his wild youth).

Malick is masterful at showing people working in nature.

Much of the movie’s dialogue is actually voice-over. This allows an increasingly sharp contrast between the calm words and the violent events on screen. It is also one obvious way of representing prayer, and several voice-overs are explicitly addressed to God. In many other scenes, the cast speaks untranslated German. The villagers yell untranslated slurs at Fani, the guards at a Nazi prison shout untranslated commands. This decision adds to the atmosphere of lugubrious fable—and suggests that some characters are people whereas others are merely circumstances. The indistinguishable Jägerstätter daughters exist solely to raise the stakes of their father’s choices. Similarly, the town’s mayor exists only to make villainous speeches attacking immigrants.

Malick is masterful at showing people working in nature—all the sowing and threshing scenes are powerful, evoking both the painful beauty of this life and the divine harvest yet to come. He gives us brief moments of specific sweetness, like Franz balancing a rifle on his foot or Fani pretending to smoke wheat with her sister. But too often Malick resorts to familiar soaring shots of fog smoking off the mountains, or vertiginous camera movements that swoop in and out for no apparent reason.

They try to understand how a God who seeks and promises their happiness could ask them “to bring suffering on ourselves.

The dialogue is also often overfamiliar and delivered in a self-consciously doom-laden hoarse whisper. Fani remembers meeting Franz: “That motorcycle… my best dress… how simple life was then.” A church painter stands in for the director, castigating both his audience and himself: “They look up [at the painted Christ] and they imagine that if they lived in Christ’s time they wouldn’t have acted as the others did.” This is freshman-dorm stuff; it’s not untrue—we all imagine that we would have been heroes in the circumstances we didn’t face—but it also isn’t nearly as insightful as the film wants us to believe.

Malick here expresses an artist’s fears about his work: “We create admirers. We do not create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it,” the painter says. Again, all of this is true enough, but must it be said with such self-importance? “A darker time is coming,” he says, just like a movie trailer. He says he can’t paint Christ honestly because he hasn’t suffered enough yet, and while that likely reflects a real problem for contemporary American filmmakers, I am not convinced it was a problem for a man who had just survived his country’s breakup and defeat in the First World War.

That war’s devastation appears nowhere in this film (except one quick reference to the death of Franz’s father). It is both more accurate to history and more clarifying for our own time to say people can learn the wrong things from real agony.

As the couple’s situation worsens, the film improves. The contrast between the couple’s internal life of prayer and their external abandonment emerges. They try to understand how a God who seeks and promises their happiness could ask them “to bring suffering on ourselves.” They cry out against God’s pitilessness. They are not unflinching; both Franz and Fani are poignantly embarrassed by their resistance. Their most resonant and personal quality is how much they don’t want to be here. Franz shakes uncontrollably when he has to stand defiant.

Once Franz is imprisoned (for refusing to take an oath to Hitler) the insistent use of voice-over emphasizes he and his wife’s unshared isolation. God never replies; the camera prowls the line of closed, blank cell doors; the real priest-martyr, Father Franz Reinisch, whose example strengthened the real Franz Jägerstätter, does not appear. Even the untranslated German takes on a new role, exposing the divide between the body’s imprisonment and the freedom of one’s hidden thoughts. Malick is restrained in depicting violence, with the searing exception of one beating, filmed from Franz’s point of view, in which the unexpected camera angles give the scene a jagged immediacy.

There are several exchanges between Franz and his captors that circle around this question of the hidden life: If nobody knows you resisted, how can it matter? Franz never answers, which is the smartest dialogue choice in the film. He does, in a way, answer the judge who challenges him: “Do you have a right to do this?” Franz replies, “Do I have a right not to?” When Franz leaves we see the judge crammed into his chair, a strange visual suggestion that power is not freedom and can be its opposite.

Malick frequently calls our attention to people bowing their heads—Franz looking down when soldiers come to his farm, prisoners bowing their heads before their guards. But these gestures of submission are paralleled, in the film’s most beautiful scene, by Fani and her fellow villagers working in the fields when the Angelus tolls and everyone stops to bow their heads in prayer. This film gives its heroes a kind of freedom that is also a painful constraint, what Paul called slavery to Christ.

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