Terrence Malick’s timely latest explores the patient power of non-violent protest
I count Terrence Malick among my holy trinity of directors, alongside Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. If Kubrick’s my Father, someone who explores the inner workings of human nature, exposing our flaws and weaknesses, and PTA’s my Son, someone who’s learned from those weaknesses and believes that we can find an ultimate redemption in them, then Malick is my Holy Spirit. He’s a director whose films explore those underlying mysteries — there’s a fascination with why we take the paths we choose, the unseen hands that guide us down them, and how our life’s journeys relate to the Universe at large. While the other two focus heavily on the trappings we create for ourselves, be it Vice or some other corruptibility, Malick’s films are urged on by a more spiritual hunger, more crises of conscience.
Whether it’s attempting to satisfy that hunger between those we love as in To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, or Song to Song, or in the faith in a higher power with The Tree of Life, Malick’s recent characters find themselves searching for deliverance or comfort in something beyond the material world, often to the confusion or anger of those around them. I love these films because they acknowledge the pain of uncertainty and doubt, and how tempting it can be to bury ourselves in distractible things — but also Malick’s films believe that there will come a time where, if we search hard enough, and surrender ourselves to what the Universe reveals to us, that beautiful sense of purpose and fulfillment will emerge.
His latest, A Hidden Life, follows a father compelled by his own crisis at a time of widespread moral corruption. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer, is drafted by the Nazis at the dread-soaked beginning of World War II. Franz has spent his life trying to build “a life above the clouds” for his family — an idyllic life, free of the troubles of the world. Over the course of the film’s first half, Franz reckons with how naive and wrong this belief is as his fellow townspeople fall under the sway of Nazi dogma. The townspeople’s hatred fractures their community into those eager to please their new rulers, and those fearful of incurring their wrath. Franz turns to his spiritual leaders, hoping for some higher guidance, but even they have fallen under the boot of Hitler, acknowledging one’s sense of duty and subjugation even as their church bells are melted for bullets. Franz goes through with Army training, but his biggest test comes when all soldiers are required to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Faced with isolation, imprisonment, and potentially execution the longer he holds onto his conscientious objection, Franz struggles to hold true to what he believes is right in a world that’s lost its way.
While Franz’s choice may seem easy to an audience with nearly eighty years of hindsight, A Hidden Life refuses to make Franz’s choice free from grueling consequence. Franz is gripped with indecision before he chooses to refuse Hitler’s oath as much as when he’s being coerced to recant it. His family, especially his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), has accepted and champion Franz’s decision to maintain the moral high ground — still, Franz must reckon with what might happen to them in his absence. Franz’s repugnance at Nazi war crimes quickly makes enemies of his fellow community, and the Jägerstätters find themselves quickly ostracized. The Church, Franz’s last refuge and moral compass, urges him to keep his treasonous thoughts to himself, and to obey his leaders.
Malick illustrates this widespread alienation through the use of language. At the film’s beginning, Franz and Fani speak German with their fellow townspeople. As A Hidden Life progresses, there seems to be a deliberate divide between English and unsubtitled German — as if Fascism has created a Tower of Babel-like situation that’s split a once-unified people among those who believe in the idea of Volk and those who don’t. There’s a systemic resistance towards Franz’s actions, one that’s suffocating in its pervasiveness. What makes Franz such a memorable character, though, is his decision to follow through with this choice to act, to not give into fear and hatred.
Franz’s choice is clear; but again, A Hidden Life refuses to give this clarity an easy path to travel. When Franz refuses to surrender his loyalty to Hitler, few understand his willingness to accept the magnitude of consequence he’s bringing upon himself. Even more doubt the efficacy of his actions against such unified oppression. Franz’s court appointed lawyers suggest that the Oath is something others don’t take seriously, that his troubles are thus self-inflicted moral indulgence. Others, like his tribunal judge (a moving final performance by Bruno Ganz), take Franz’s passionate, resolute suffering as an indictment of his own choices, and reply with the belief that Franz’s actions are too small to amount to any major change. Franz is made to suffer as a reaction to his stoic determination, from physical brutality at the hands of prison guards, to more psychological torture as Fani undergoes the grueling journey between Austria and Berlin, Germany to appeal for her husband’s safety, only to be undercut by indifferent bureaucracy. Both Franz, and Fani by extension, are subject to the reactionary blows and dangers of this system, all because they refuse to comply.
But what unifies the anger and indifference they face is a uniform refusal to acknowledge what validity Franz may have in his beliefs. The world Franz lives in is one that’s so buried and equally resolute in its ideology that to acknowledge its shortcomings is to acknowledge the evils committed in its name. Which makes Franz’s refusal to comply not only so alien, but so dangerous. It’s why his lawyer is so puzzled by Franz’s refusal to sign a piece of paper to go free. His response, “But I am free,” is so contradictory to someone who has already sold off what morality they may possess. But even though he doesn’t intend to hold up a mirror to his oppressors’ actions — “I don’t say, ‘he’s wicked, I’m right’” — Franz does force those who interact with him to reckon with their actions, and their place in this world of cruelty.
Because to Franz, his words and actions mean everything in the world.
“A man may do wrong, and he can’t get out of it to make his life clear. Maybe he’d like to go back, but he can’t. I have this feeling inside me…that I can’t do what I believe is wrong.”
This interaction forces his judge to literally sit in the throne of the judged. And even though he passes the death sentence on Franz, effectively silencing him in the eyes of the State, he cannot deny the effect the encounter with Franz has on him.
A Hidden Life explores familiar ground for Malick — the question of the efficacy of our actions lingers through The Thin Red Line (“What can a single man do in all this madness?”) — but Franz Jägerstätter’s story further deepens this crisis by connecting it to the same ephemerality explored through his recent autobiographical trilogy that began with The Tree of Life. A Hidden Life doesn’t just explore whether or not there’s a God that allows evil to happen, but also reckons with how much evil we are willing to let happen before we choose to act. There is both a consciousness of a higher morality, but also a moving sense of individual responsibility and action. We cannot wait for judgment to be passed, to let ill be done and wait for a larger reckoning. To let that be the case is to abdicate any sense of individual conscience. Rather, Malick encourages us to hold fast to our beliefs of truth and justice in times of hatred, to cast down our swords and practice non-violence in the wake of cruelty. A Hidden Life is a refusal to accept violence and depravity as man’s natural state. That in the larger scheme of things, this steadfast dedication to one’s moral causes, unwavering in their fortitude, will outlast any temporary evil.
A Hidden Life is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital from Searchlight Pictures.