A George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) quote underscores the meaning of Terrence Malick’s best film to date, “A Hidden Life”. In “Middlemarch: A Study Of Provincial Life” ( 1872 ), Eliot writes “ …the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts….is half owing to the number who live faithfully in hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.” The true events of a conscientious objector, an Austrian farmer who is conscripted into Hitler’s army, plays out for almost three hours on screen. It is a spiritual experience that has me reevaluating Director Malick. ( I almost walked out on his “Tree of Life” 2011 pomposity . ) Eleven years later, this time Malick has a story to tell of obscurity and truth.
“A Hidden Life” is philosophical in tone. There is not much dialogue, and when there is , it is through letters being read. We see some real images of WWII Austria, newsreel footage of Hitler parades, but most of the film is in the small mountain village of upper Austria. The frames are replete with gentle swaying grass, meadows, and all absence of concrete. In domesticity, it could be 1600 rather than 1938. We are given to miss the simple valley life of white clouds resting on mountains, brooks babbling, and church steeples peeling. The film is worth seeing for its beauty and sound track. But there is an important story to be told.
Before France’s 1940 surrender, Austrian men when conscripted were made to recite an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Our protagonist, Franz Jagestatter ( August Diehl) silently refuses. His wife, Fanni ( Valarie Pachner) supports his stance. The St. Radegund rural community whispers non-support while potato planting, and we see the coming storm as Franz’s family is ostracized from communal work and festivities. The village women tell Fanni that her husband’s non-compliance is an ” act of madness”. Even the village priest counsels Franz to comply for the consequences of remaining silent are too severe. ” God does not care what you say. He knows what is in your heart.”
Glorious visuals of fast flowing streams and streaming clouds shepherd in reprisals for our pacifist. ” You can not put your home, your village in jeopardy. They will hang you.” ” You are worse than them, because you are a traitor to us.” Franz’s mother blames his wife for supporting his refusal to contribute or to accept the family allowance from the state. The mayor, his sister, and others admonish his pride.
Franz seeks further Church guidance from the bishop, whom he thanks for seeing him. ” Your excellency, ”If God gives us free will and our leaders are evil what do we do?”
The answer comes too easily. ” Duty to the fatherland. Let every man be subject to the power that is placed over him.” The church bells are melted down for bullets. Living in fear is for the clergy, too. The cardinal rationalizes that Franz may be a spy. Priests are sent to concentration camps, also. “ God does not want us to bring suffering on ourselves.”
Malick has composed a very metaphysical and religious film. Using natural light only, we see Franz in his cell. We see Stations of the Cross, and an artist refurbishing the village church. Of his refurbishing, he states: “ I allow those who sit in the pews to dream. I create admirers. Many ignore the truth. I paint the comfortable Christ with a halo on his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” Here, we don’t need to intuit Christ’s call to action.
When asked by the prison commandant what purpose his defiance serves, Franz stands firm. He is asked if he hears voices. He is told that the anti-Christ is clever. The devil uses man’s virtues to mislead him. We see a frame of a water spout dripping doubts. The film is technically perfect, with the depth of a man’s conscious in full view. Franz says that his bound hands are better than if my will were bound.He is free in the way that counts.
Cinematographer Jörg Widmer is the master of diffused light, awe-gasping frames, and Vermeer-like focus. I have not seen a more artistic eye. In capturing nature, the human face , and interior scenes, his camera will stop your heart.
The musical score is by James Newton Howard. He features the violin. A forty piece string section is as romantic as it gets. Franz Jägerstätter is executed at 36 in 1943. His wife and three daughters survive knowing that Franz was beatified by the Catholic Church as a martyr. No matter what your beliefs, Malick’s film is truly heavenly. One of my favorites of 2019.