“Do you decide what is good and what is evil?” This question is asked of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), the protagonist of Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. And the answer should of course be a resounding ‘yes’, but most people would settle on a ‘no’. “It is not for you to decide,” they say, but if one believes in free will given to us by God, as Franz Jägerstätter absolutely does, one can only come to the conclusion that it is for him to decide, for himself.
A Hidden Life tells Jägerstätter’s story, an Austrian farmer during World War II who is conscripted for military service by the German army. Jägerstätter, a deeply religious man, cannot align his faith with the Nazi ideals that he would be fighting for, so he becomes a conscientious objector. He is arrested for treason and faces execution, but his unwavering faith and his love for his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) keep his spirits up until the very end.
In the hands of Terrence Malick, himself a man of deep faith, this true story is a perfect starting point for a humanist and philosophical probing of one’s own positions, as always raising more questions than answers. The core point of the film here is one’s convictions and how deep they run. I saw a tweet describing Jägerstätter as ‘a very stubborn man’, but that is missing the point. Whoever tweeted that is not alone, as several characters in the film, including his wife, implore Jägerstätter to give in, to join the army as a medic without a need to actually fight. But it is not stubbornness that drives Jägerstätter, it is a deeply rooted conviction that the Nazi cause is an evil one. And his conviction is so strong that he is willing to die for it. That is not stubbornness, that is faith.
As an atheist, I personally struggle with understanding why people believe in God. But I do want to understand, and the films of Terrence Malick help with that to some extent, at least in showing just how deep some people’s faith runs. A Hidden Life is a return for Malick to these thematics of the dichotomy between the existence of God and faith, and the existence of evil. The last time he explored this theme was in The Tree of Life, where he looked at man’s struggle with God in this regard: why does He let evil exist in this world, and how does one, as a believer, reconcile with that? A Hidden Life does not ask questions of God but takes the existence of evil in this world as a fact, and tries to show how some people reconcile (or not) their faith with that idea: can they live with it, or will they resist it to the bitter end?
To someone who doesn’t understand Jägerstätter, like myself, A Hidden Life is a fascinating watch. Like any Malick film it deals heavily with people’s inner thoughts (so voice-over galore, as usual), but suprisingly there is actually a clear narrative here, which Malick follows chronologically to boot. A Hidden Life is basically a biopic of Franz Jägerstätter. For someone like Malick who has gradually moved away from straightforward narratives into more associative and metaphorical cinema, it is almost jarring. This of course does not mean typical Malickisms are absent. Even with a new DP (Jörg Widmer), the cinematography is still of the flowing, ultrawide variety, which works well with the alpine scenery. The small Austrian village and its fields, always surrounded by the high ranges of the Alps in the background, give the setting an almost idyllic nature, a fenced-in, hidden life, kept out of sight behind those mountains. An idyll that is disturbed when evil arrives in the form of perhaps its worst incarnation that the world has ever known, Nazism.
His best film since The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life is Malick’s powerful rumination on free will and faith, and on the willingness to stay true to your opinions. Clocking in at just under three hours without feeling excessive, the film has relevance in our current world, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons Malick wanted to tell this story. It is a beautiful portrait of a man whose faith did not waver, almost frustratingly so to some. By coincidence, it might make an interesting double header with the Dardennes film, Le jeune Ahmed, also a film about somebody who acts out of strong faith. The difference between Jägerstätter and Ahmed is the absence of dogma in the former’s beliefs, but both films show what strong convictions can lead to, for better or worse. A Hidden Life just does it better.