Pick of the Week: A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life tells the virtually unknown true story of Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, who is drafted into the German army as part of the Nazi war effort. But when he refuses to swear the oath to Hitler, he is sent to prison and faces the threat of execution for treason. What follows is a test of faith, love, conscience, and the enduring human spirit.
The experience of watching a Terrence Malick film is like wading through a dream - a meditative, ethereal one in which your heart strings will be filled with extreme wonder and in the case of A Hidden Life, a pinching sadness, but will always leave you with much food for thought about the human condition.
August Diehl’s Franz is a small farmer living on the hillsides of a picturesque Austria, straight out of a hypnotic fairytale, with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), three children, his mother, and his sister-in-law. When Franz refuses to enlist in the army, he’s made an outcast in his small community, with younger village kids pelting his children with mud, and the other women shunning his wife. Through his character, Malick explores the relationship between religion and faith, when ensconced in a failing system that pushes one to give up his beliefs rather than face the consequences for them. The film identifies two types of systemic failures; one represented by the xenophobic mayor of the town, a true ‘believer’ who gives impassioned speeches in the town beer garden about the superiority of the Aryan race and the supposed ‘encroachment’ of the ‘unwanted.’ And the other is the clergy, to whom Franz turns to for respite and answers, but whose hands are tied; they too hold their tongues and compromise. In contrast, it is only Fani’s unwavering support that gives Franz the strength he needs to stay true to his beliefs.
The film alternates between Franz and Fani’s perspectives, intercut with gorgeous, arresting images of the happy life they shared on the hillsides. The first half is like a mirage, the beauty of everyday life in an earthly paradise; a reminder that nature can both physically and spiritually withstand any evils that humans bring upon themselves and are subsequently forced to bear. The film is quintessential Malick: multiple voice overs, upward shots of a picture perfect sky, an underlying sense of spirituality, and a long run-time. His films are characterised by a lightness in movement, almost like you are floating in a fairytale. But A Hidden Life is rooted in the moral high ground of the circumstances and resulting turmoil that Franz and his family have to face and in spite of its 3hr run-time, it is possibly the most linear film Malick has ever made.
The most striking performance in the film has to be from August Diehl, who doesn’t let the scarcity of dialogue deter from his delivery. His presence on screen is especially shattering in the second half, when Franz is thrown into doubt and torment about what sticking to his principles would mean for his family. If Franz seems more grounded and human here, even as the director is tapping into Christ parallels and despite the whispers of ‘believers’, including his own defence lawyer who tries to get him to see reason, it is to the credit of Diehl’s controlled and deeply layered awareness of his character.
Perhaps the only reservation I have with the film is its circumvention of a concrete historical context, where Malick’s lyrical style of filmmaking washes over the urgent political conversation the film hints at. Nazism is depicted as a collection of jarring symbols instead of the systemic form of hatred that it was, for example, even in his xenophobic speech in the beer garden, the mayor does not explicitly mention Jews, he just says, ‘impure races’. One might say that the screenplay holds art and aestheticism above the political scenario of the time, or perhaps the decision was intended to mirror the simplicity and purity of Franz’s beliefs, which culminate in an urgent question he eventually raises in the film: “If our leaders are evil, what are we to do?” Barely a century later, as we once again face a similar quandary today, Franz Jägerstätter answers this question for us himself; by maintaining unwavering resolve in beliefs that stem from the singular objectives of goodness.
Now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
Terrence Malick is an American screenwriter, director, and producer, who made his directorial debut with the film Badlands in 1973. His other works include Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, which won the Golden Bear at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival and The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. His filmmaking style is characterised by a heavy gravitation towards themes of nature, spirituality, and the conflict between human instinct and reason.