A World War II Biopic That Raises Pressing Modern Questions
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life tells the story of an Austrian farmer’s defiance in the face of a regime that contradicted his deepest beliefs.
“What happened to our country? To the land we love?” It’s a question one can imagine being asked in many places, at many moments in history, and one that will surely have resonance for viewers in the present day. In Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, it’s being asked by the Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), and what has happened to his country is the rise of fascism and annexation by Nazi Germany. Since this is a Malick movie, that cataclysm is represented with stark, sweeping scenery: rolling bucolic landscapes disrupted by the arrival of troops and blue skies suddenly darkening as they’re broken up by thunderous storms.
Jägerstätter, who lived in the small mountain village of Sankt Radegund, was an openly anti-Nazi, devoutly Catholic man. He was eventually conscripted into the Nazi army, but refused to swear an oath to Hitler even on penalty of death. His status as a martyr is of obvious fascination to Malick. The director has long wrestled with the role of piety in day-to-day life, but his most recent films have been highly personal, abstract affairs that drew from his own experiences. Movies such as Knight of Cups and Song to Song were interesting but limited—fractured bits of memory rather than complete narratives. A Hidden Life is far more reminiscent of “classic” Malick, and it’s a joy to have him back.
Malick made his name in the ’70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, films that established him as a master of poetic imagery and haunting stories. The work that A Hidden Life most reminded me of, though, was The Thin Red Line, his 1998 masterpiece about the subtle and violent horrors of war. That film is set during World War II in the Melanesian islands of the South Pacific, another haven of natural beauty defiled by chaos and death. While it centers on American troops rather than the Austrian soldiers of A Hidden Life, it likewise emphasizes the loss of paradise both ideal and physical, and the visceral disorder that follows a catastrophic conflict.
A Hidden Life goes a step further by implicitly tying Jägerstätter’s dilemma to the present day; the film begins with real-life footage of Nazis marching with torches, an uncomfortable and pointed echo of photos from the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Moments later, the film cuts to a secluded mountain town where, for Jägerstätter and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), that threat seems a world away. Malick’s gift for depicting raw emotion through camera movement and largely wordless montages—the couple farming, or dancing, or celebrating in the square with other townspeople—is in full force for the first act of the film, showing a giddy joy that will eventually give way to something crueler.
Sure enough, signs of authoritarianism begin to show even before troops start marching through the town. The new mayor is a strident xenophobe, given to outbursts of nationalistic language that give Jägerstätter pause. Military planes begin to rattle the skies overhead. Clouds and fog appear across the hills and valleys; the cinematography, by Jörg Widmer, is staggering, translating the sight of a gathering storm into a symbol of God’s wrath. Though Jägerstätter is dragged into the army early in the war, he never sees combat, because of France’s quick surrender. When he’s conscripted again, he has to make a more principled choice: a rejection of Hitler that he knows could lead to his execution.
At 174 minutes, A Hidden Life is Malick’s longest theatrical film yet. The extended running time seems intentional, contributing to the sense of entrapment that arises when Jägerstätter is imprisoned for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler. Even as the plot turns totally static, this section of the film contains its most dramatic, effective sequences, in which Jägerstätter is dragged before authority figures—a priest, a bishop, a Nazi general—and forced to defend his beliefs. Malick can turn philosophical quandaries into tactile, engaging scenes, and these conversations are incredible, often racked with anguish as Jägerstätter realizes that even the men of God he admires are trying to talk him into compromise.
“Mine is the smallest of crosses,” Jägerstätter says with self-deprecation. He sees his own defiance as simple and obvious, a rejection of a regime that’s as far from his Christian values as he can imagine. Malick makes clear, however, how rare that sacrifice was, examining how the country around Jägerstätter—including its religious leaders—had to make a show of ignoring his plight. The current implications of A Hidden Life feel most pressing here: Malick is asking the audience (and himself) if they would capitulate in the face of tyranny or make Jägerstätter’s sacrifice. It’s a decision Malick memorializes beautifully, in a film that is his most affecting effort in almost a decade.