“If God gives us free will, we are responsible for what we do, what we fail to do.”
This notion is central throughout Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. It is a drama based on a true story about a man who refused to give in to what he knew was wrong, even if it would cost him his life. It is moving and full of quiet emotion. The kind of story whose message contains its own strength and can simply tell itself. However, Malick is never one for simplicity. His movie is bursting with images intended to add meaning. He is aiming for a beauty that transcends the specific to become visual poetry. There are very few scenes just showing characters talking or performing an action. Most of the dialogue is heard via voiceover as we see mountains or fields or the characters sharing a tender moment during happier times. Malick’s basic narrative is given a little more attention than in several of his more recent films. Still, he is interested in feeling, not plotting. He succeeds at conveying it, for the most part. I greatly admired A Hidden Life, even if my mind wandered a time or two.
The story begins in Austria in 1939. Franz and his wife, Fani, live a good life on a farm with their three daughters. At the time, Austria was under German rule. As the Nazi party continues to gain power, Franz finds himself in a difficult position. He believes what they stand for is wrong and will not swear loyalty to Hitler. His stoic defiance terrifies their town and threatens to destroy his family.
A Hidden Life (169 minutes, without the end credits) is not about war; it is about morals. Franz disagrees with a philosophy he is ordered to abide by. What the movie is really about, what Malick wants us to consider, is “Are his ideals worth the pain and suffering he puts himself and his family through?” Numerous times he is told his gesture is meaningless. No one will ever know what he is doing; it will neither change minds nor alter the outcome of the war. So, what is the point? The point is it means something to him. It is possible he would be able to get away with not actively supporting the Nazis so long as he pretends to. It could just be empty words, throwaway salutes. But Franz would be betraying himself. He would rather die than tacitly approve of something he finds morally objectionable.
This is deep stuff you rarely see as the focus of a movie these days. Generally, it would be present, while taking a backseat to suspense or action. All of the drama here is internal. How Franz and Fani’s lives are impacted by his choices, and how she reacts to them, is what matters. Not anything outside of them. There have been enough movies about WWII and what the Nazis did to the citizens of the countries they occupied. This is about one man saying “I will not” and an exploration of what that means. Malick fills A Hidden Life with symbolism, making it more about its implications.
Malick tends toward music and images to make his movies about something much larger than its characters. Mountains, streams, fields, farming, frolicking, community meals. Fear, grief, rejection, imprisonment. These things are all bigger than the specific story. That is why their philosophical discussions are usually had while we are looking at something else. These things are what life is about. They are what is being lost. For what? For him, the answer is everything. As Franz says at one point “Better to suffer injustice than to do it.” Avoiding the unjust means more to him than self-preservation. This is what the people questioning him (neighbors or soldiers) do not understand.
A Hidden Life does not have a traditional narrative structure or an interest in setups and payoffs. This will be expected by anyone familiar with the work of Terrance Malick. It is certainly long, though an argument can be made that every second is necessary for it to build up the power it possesses. A plot synopsis does not do it justice because it is not about its story. Malick is asking complicated questions concerning the meaning, purpose and usefulness of his protagonist’s actions. He probably could have done this in a more straightforward way, yet the impact of his style would have been missed. Some may find this approach boring, in which case you likely would not enjoy the majority of Malick’s filmography. As I said, my mind drifted more than once, though I consider that a feature, not a bug. Malick wants you to think as his production unfolds. The viewer is an active participant. If A Hidden Life sounds intriguing to you, I recommend seeing it at the theater. Its epic scope needs to be properly seen on the big screen. Malick is not for everyone but, at his best, he is definitely worth the challenge.
4¼ out of 5
August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter
Valerie Pachner as Fani Jägerstätter
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick