Terrence Malick may be the world’s greatest living filmmaker, but with his last three works—2012’s To the Wonder, 2015’s Knight of Cups and 2017’s Song to Song—the director distilled his signature poetic cinema down to its abstract aesthetic core, in the process excising the narrative backbones that were key to his first five masterworks. Consider, then, A Hidden Life a triumphant return to form. A based-on-real-events saga of resistance to fascism that melds his diverse storytelling gifts to overpowering, and timely, effect, Malick’s latest is a tale of an ordinary man driven to extraordinary lengths, no matter the cost to himself and those who love him. At once intimate and in tune with the larger forces at play in the universe, it’s a three-hour WWII epic that’s all the more haunting for speaking directly to both the past and today.
As in Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, A Hidden Life (in theaters Dec. 13) concerns a pastoral Eden sullied by an invasion of “civilized” interlopers—in this case, the rustic Austrian valley town of St. Radegund, whose farmers’ peaceful 1939 reality is irrevocably altered by the arrival of Nazi stormtroopers and their toxic nationalist ethos. Malick’s film begins before the onset of this pestilence, with Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner). In an early instance of the interior-thought voiceover that, per Malick trademark, will guide this drama’s action, Franz intones, “We lived above the clouds,” and snippets of their daily toil in the fields, and joyful dancing at a local tavern, suggests a quiet, simple existence bordering on the heavenly.
Geographic remoteness, however, is no barrier to corruption, and the coming of war and swastika-decorated soldiers soon infects St. Radegund’s once-pure atmosphere, inspiring the mayor to drunkenly rant about the need to fight back against foreigners, immigrants and other “races.” Malick’s handheld camera evokes Franz and Franziska’s bliss together (and with their children) by swaying, lurching, and racing about in accord with their movements. Similarly, it foreshadows Franz’s forthcoming catastrophic predicament in an early shot that pans down from treetops set against a gigantic sky, to shadowy earthbound Franz below—an image imbued with import because the pious Franz, it turns out, stands in opposition to the Nazi Party, even though he knows he’ll soon be enlisted into its military, and forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Third Reich.
Thus a crisis is born, of both a moral and spiritual kind. “Don’t they know evil when they see it?” Franz muses. “We’re used to it now. Crime. No shame. Be careful.” It’s impossible not to hear a plaintive warning about 2019 (and Donald Trump and his ilk) in those sentiments, and for Franz, Nazism proves a test of his commitment to his clan, his country and his maker. “You have a duty to the Fatherland. The church tells you so,” says a local bishop (the late Michael Nyqvist), and such advice only compounds Franz’s profound problem, because it conflates nation and God—two beloved entities that, for an ethical and devout individual like Franz, are now in direct opposition. When the time comes to make a choice, he refuses to make the pledge demanded of him by the Nazis, and for this sin, he’s arrested.
A Hidden Life is the portrait of a common man compelled by his conscience and his faith to make the hard choice in the face of evil. The price he and his spouse, offspring, and elderly mother must pay for his actions is terribly high. In piercing close-ups of pro-Nazi townsfolk that put the lie to the both-sides-ism of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Malick conveys the screaming, spitting vitriol hurled at Franz and Franziska, as well as the communal ostracization that follows in its wake. A suave government official (Matthias Schoenaerts) and, later, a tribunal judge (the late Bruno Ganz) both tell Franz that he won’t change anything by making this stand; in fact, no one will ever know about it. Nonetheless, he perseveres, and as underlined by a closing George Eliot quote, the film exists precisely to counteract those Nazi attempts at dissuasion, both by publicizing conscientious objector Franz’s story to the world, and by lionizing his behavior as the bedrock foundation of a just civilization.
Tracing the thin boundary between selfless virtue and destructive pride (as well as the issue of how God could allow such Nazi monstrousness to exist in the first place), Malick steeps his depiction of principled bravery in Christian notions of sacrifice. Still, he isn’t content with merely casting Franz as a Christ-like martyr; on the contrary, via Diehl’s wrenching performance, he focuses on the very mortal struggle to stay true to convictions even when the consequences of doing so are clear, and horrific. Moreover, his film is equally concerned with the plight of Franziska, who endures great suffering—of a physical, social and emotional sort—thanks to her husband, and whose loyalty to him in his time of need is its own act of moral courage. A Hidden Life is, in that respect, about responsibility: to family, to community, to God, and to self. And though it occasionally feels a bit distended (especially in its middle section), it investigates its thorny questions with equal parts despair, doubt, and resolve.
It also does so with an aesthetic splendor that renders most of today’s contemporary cinema pedestrian by comparison. Collaborating with cinematographer Jörg Widmer, Malick’s searching, probing, gliding images are a wonder to behold, as are his poignant portraitures and painterly tableaus of characters during moments of bliss and agony, be they threshing wheat in expansive fields, lying in grass, or pacing in stone prison tombs. There’s majesty in more offhand shots here than in fifty studio offerings, such as a quick glimpse of an anguished Franziska holding a tangle of rope (a symbolic representation of her fury, sorrow, and terror), and archival train footage that evokes the Holocaust atrocities being carried out by Hitler’s minions.
Its gaze habitually positioned from below looking up at faces, and toward celestial sources of light, and its action set to a James Newton Howard score of soaring orchestral arrangements and choral singing that practically lifts the proceedings up to a higher plane, A Hidden Life feels as if it’s in harmonious communion with both the terrestrial and the divine. It’s a rapturous sensorial experience to be treasured—and a heartrending tribute to anti-fascist defiance to be celebrated, especially in this day and age.