‘A Hidden Life’ – a thundering act of grace

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After three hours of important and operatic filmmaking, A Hidden Life concludes with a George Eliot quote from which the film’s title was derived:

“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.”

This isn’t a spoiler, because this is the entire ethos and thesis of Terrence Malick’s latest intimate epic. It’s about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler or fight for the Nazis in World War II. 

Franz’s life is hidden — and has been mostly hidden to history since the 1940s — partly because he lived in a remote village of farmers and tradesmen surrounded by vast mountain ranges. It makes for an absolutely stunning visual experience. But the film might feel like one of Malick’s later empty-headed art installations like Song to Song or Knight of Cups were it not for the fact that the subject matter is so much more hefty, and so right for Malick’s trademark style. 

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A devout Catholic, Franz struggles to understand why his friends, family, clergy, and neighbors go along with Hitler’s nationalism and hatred as it starts to seep into his community. Several moments reminded me of interactions I’ve had with Trump supporters, some of whom come off to me as brainwashed and unable to see reason. Malick’s typically jittery camerawork emphasizes the tensions these social interactions often create. The verticality in his and director of photography Jörg Widmer’s style of shooting dialogue scenes gives us a sense of shifting dynamics of power. In one gorgeous shot (there are so many), a group of Nazi officers descends a hill towards Franz, and the camera is in exactly the right spot to make Franz look weak and ineffectual.

But if one were to walk away from this film thinking Franz lived a weak and ineffectual life, that would be to totally misinterpret what is a truly heroic act. Franz and his wife Franziska work diligently on their farm. At least a third of this film is dedicated to depicting the backbreaking labor Franz and Franziska performed every day, both before the rise of Nazi fascism and during its reign in Austria. What struck me about all the farming was that it provided a window into how fascism can take hold in small communities such as these. One essentially has two choices: either to blame helpless outsiders for one’s problems, and thus be able to continue one’s work without threat, or to stand up against the rising tide of hate and face the personal consequences, as Franz does. In this film, neither seems to be an easy choice. This is partly because of how difficult daily life was at the time — the manual labor becomes unimaginable emotional labor once these life-changing stakes are grafted on, and especially after Franz is taken to prison.

The stress of Franz’s choice on his wife and children would be almost too much to bear in one film were it not for how the film explores faith. In some ways, it’s a biblical exegesis, and in other ways, it’s an exegesis and exhumation of one man’s life. He is not perfect and the film is under no illusion that he is. But he does do something unbelievably selfless, even in the face of Nazi officers violently reminding him every day how selfish he is. Their strategy is to ingrain in him a sense of regret for effectively abandoning his family. But Franziska is always on his side. It’s a powerful romance which underlines the religious aspects of the film. If it were just Franz fighting this fight alone, there would be little beauty in the piece. When Franziska is on screen, you immediately understand why the couple worked and fought for each other for so many years. Even without the voice-over narration of letters they sent each other, you can just see the true love they have for each other in every frame.

Cannes/ Wettbewerb/ A HIDDEN LIFE

Of course, this palpable sense of romance is due in large part to the performances of the two leads. August Diehl, with his stern features and uncanny ability to swing swiftly from exuberance to dread and back again, imbues Franz with a total fullness of spirit. He’s a character that could feel purely polemical, but as played by Diehl, his motivations are steadfast and always convincing. Valerie Pachner gives what I think is one of the very best performances of the year as Franziska. The scenes in which she digs into the dirt, taking her anger out on the earth that is her business partner, are exactly what people mean when they talk about the power of cinema. Untethered and disillusioned, there are no words to express her anguish. The ‘homeland’ the Nazis talk of is worthless to her; her real home is her farm, which for her is still unclaimed territory. There can be no invasion of the soul.

A Hidden Life is undoubtedly one of the most stunning film experiences of this or any year. I’m so happy that Malick still knows how to make powerful, challenging, undeniably beautiful works of art. It’s a welcome return to form. More than that, it’s a call to true faith and love, which does and will always triumph over hate.

-George Napper

‘A Hidden Life’ will be released nationwide in the US on December 13

2hr, 53min; Rated PG-13 for thematic material including violent images

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