Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Composer: James Newton Howard
Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts
Genre: Drama, Biography, Romance
Terrence Malick is one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors. Most directors have a STYLE that differentiates them from other artists. Stanley Kubrick was a rigid perfectionist. Wes Anderson films his movies like portraits. Guillermo Del Toro is a romantic schlockmeister. Malick is different in that he doesn’t just film traditional clean-cut stories. He’s a director of long-winded, emotionally devastating collages. His movies often eschew plot for visual poetry and motion. It’s not the kind of thing you can recommend to everyone, but there’s a beauty to all nine of his films that makes them irreplaceable. After a decade of experimenting with some of his least coherent and most experimental movies yet, he’s finally returned to the epic historical tragedies that have defined his long career, with masterpieces like Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life.
Violence/Scary Images: Characters are violently beaten. A character is executed offscreen.
Language/Crude Humor: Mild to no language.
Sexual Content: Characters embrace and kiss.
Spiritual Content: Characters attend a Catholic church and ponder on the nature of morality. The main character is retroactively declared a martyr.
Other Negative Content: Depiction of bigotry, Nazism and torture.
Positive Content: Themes of sacrifice, steadfastness and faith.
What if you were asked to do something horrible and the cost of not doing it is death? How far are you willing to go to avoid compromising your values? If free will exists, then what excuse do you have to avoid asking yourself these questions when evil approaches your door? These are the questions Terrence Malick asks in his new three-hour epic, A Hidden Life. These are hard questions in any circumstance and Malick’s uniquely poetic vision of cinema brings them to life in a montage of beautiful, deliberate and lush visuals set against the Austrian countryside.
Questions on the nature of God and man aren’t anything new to Mr. Malick. In many ways these questions are all extensions of the ones he asked in his 2011 masterpiece, The Tree of Life. What is human nature? What is our responsibility in this life? Why does God leave us to suffer? With that film he retold the essential story of The Book of Job in a more modern context. His vision recast the greatest questions a human can ask against the grace and majesty of the creation of the Earth, just as God did to Job.
Mind you, I’m not sure if Terrence Malick is a Christian. His body of work overall reflects an air of materialism and humanism that most Christian filmmakers would never embrace. If anything, his vision most calls to mind the flawed and hypocritical faith of Martin Scorsese that we see in films like Last Temptation of Christ and Silence. Either Malick is a reluctant Christian or a reluctant atheist. Since he doesn’t give interviews, he likely won’t be expanding on his ideas outside of the film itself.
With A Hidden Life, he seems to lean more to the former than the latter. Here the themes extrapolate and meditate on one important idea: what does it mean to die for your values? The story explores the real life martyr,, Franz Jägerstätter. This poor Austrian farmer was drafted by the German army in 1943, refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and was subsequently executed. That might seem a bit too forthcoming in the story description, but A Hidden Life isn’t a story that can be ruined with spoilers. This is a film that’s about the horrific journey of one man’s faith being tested over the course of an agonizing period of time. As with his previous films like Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life, this story is explored via a long train of disconnected and beautiful images, that form an extended visual metaphor for these characters’ journeys and decisions.
The Austrian countryside as we see it is immaculately beautiful and serene. The images of Nazi soldiers and swastikas stand in contrast against the lush mountsides and waterfalls of Franz’s home. In most regards, he’s a man deeply disconnected from the Second World War. He serves briefly in the army during the “Phony War”, before being sent home to work as a farmer. When he’s forcibly dragged to Germany again to join the Nazi war effort, the visuals shift to montages of urban decay. His jail cell is a hellish brown with a light pouring in from the window above which he’s not allowed to peer through. Here Franz is beaten, forced to stand quietly without talking to his fellow prisoners and fed poorly for the sad, final duration of his life.
At every point in the process of his refusal to serve the Nazis, he’s given the choice to abdicate. Even after he’s sentenced to death, his lawyer confirms that he could change his mind and join the army then and there. The movie’s primary content lets us simmer in the thoughts and writings of Franz and his wife as they correspond and exposit their feelings through letters and internal monologues.
It’s in these spaces where the heart and soul of A Hidden Life is found. Calling it a meditation would be cliché but that’s about the tone it’s going for. This is a long, deliberately paced and emotionally exhausting film with a very simple narrative that wants to make the space between the decisions and consequences as painfully long as possible. Maybe the best example of this comes late in the film during the scene leading up to Franz’s execution. We see the door to the execution chamber at the end of a large courtyard. A line of men stand along a wall one at a time, queuing to be lead through a door where only death awaits. Franz is near the end of the line, and we watch as man after man is lead into this place of no return. It’s a horrifyingly dreadful scene that eats away at your anticipation of the inevitable. The story wants us to sit with Franz and his family in every second of this journey of self-sacrifice.
The title reflects the character’s meditation on his own imminent demise. It’s borrowed from a George Elliot quote: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Franz doesn’t know if his act of martyrdom and sacrifice will make a difference. As he and the Nazis around him enforce, it may in fact have the opposite consequence. Maybe his refusal will mean another man will have to fight and die on his behalf? Maybe he will be totally forgotten by history, as many thousands of unremarkable martyrs have tragically been? Beyond the fact that the real Franz was honored by the Catholic Church for his decision, the war didn’t stop. The world kept turning and the worst tragedy in human history continued. How much of a difference did Franz’s sacrifice make?
This tension between the individual’s choice and the society moving in the opposite direction is a difficult one that doesn’t provide easy answers. It could reflect a modern world facing the rise of extremist groups, but it’s a perfect metaphor for the Christian life as it ought to be lived. The world does not corrupt our faith in broad strokes but in tiny compromises. Faith can often survive a horrific tragedy but the small acts of betrayl against the Lord are the ones that often harm us most. A fully uncompromising Christian will be an enemy of the world and an enemy of society. Franz’s refusal to serve Hitler in any capacity reflects how a Christian ought to stand up to the world. It won’t likely fix the world but it will go farther to protect your soul and inspire others than you may ever know.
A Hidden Life isn’t a movie I would recommend to most people. It’s excessively long and slow to the point where most people aren’t going to have the patience for it. That said, I actively encourage anyone who has the opportunity to see this in a movie theater. This is a film of splendid visual beauty and heartbreaking pain. The movie offers so much for Christian viewers in its depiction of sacrifice and steadfastness than almost any other film in years. It stands neck and neck with Hacksaw Ridge and Silence as one of the most important films this decade about the cost of living out the Christian faith.
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