When there is evil before our eyes, it is astonishing to witness firsthand how some people either ignore it or twist it into something beneficial to themselves. A character in Terrence Malick’s latest epic asks lamentably why it is no one sees this evil before them (i.e. the Nazis), but perhaps it’s not a question of seeing it at all. Perhaps it’s about excusing it in the name of a so-called greater good—the freedom of one’s country, for instance, or the defeat of one’s enemies. Terrible principles couched in populist rhetoric that aim to satisfy the most by any means necessary. Sound familiar? If it is, that familiarity comes abundantly in A Hidden Life, an elegiac biopic of sorts about martyred conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter and his steadfast refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler and his murderous regime. Malick holds Jägerstätter up as the ultimate model of steely Christian conviction—someone who would rather die with a clear conscience than betray everything he believes in to satisfy the intolerant people around him. In Malick’s view, it takes unspeakable courage to resist the smaller cruelties of daily life in order to protest even bigger ones, because suffering for righteous causes is not something many of us want to do to begin with. But it can also bring the results the world needs, even if tangentially. When one resists, others will surely follow, until enough resistance builds so that the toxic structures are dismantled for good.
Malick puts us on a trial like the trial of persecution faced by the Jägerstätters, asking us to stick with this wartime story (that never depicts wartime action) for nearly three hours. Within that timeframe, Franz and his devoted wife are mercilessly targeted from all directions; the former is eventually imprisoned and tormented like a lowborn criminal, while the latter must suffer the abuses of her irate neighbors for Franz’s obstinance. Scenarios repeat each other like mirrored reflections; the wind blows through the grassy fields and knolls of St. Radegund; the voices of Franz and Franziska speak to each other in voiceover, like letters carried to and fro by airborne particles. All of this will be enervating to the Malick doubters, though fans who have found themselves disappointed by his recent output will surely tout this as his best effort in years—mainly because it suffuses religiosity and grandeur with the same bravura approach to mise-en-scène and composition that made Malick the renowned auteur he is today by way of seminal works like Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.
For me, such considerations matter less than the fact that A Hidden Life stands firmly on its own accord, burnished with tremendous gravity and purpose. While the relevance of this tale is still shocking, what moved me most was its elemental majesty, and how the pictorial beauty of the Jägerstätters’ world is not tarnished by the spiritual ugliness of the humans they encounter. It is a withstanding force in the same way as the Jägerstätters withstand their foes. You can tell Malick admires these characters because the craft he employs to honour their legacies is so utterly invested with care. No expense is spared to bring their voices and their faith back to this world, and by doing so he has made one of the best films of his already storied career.
A Hidden Life made its Canadian premiere at TIFF in the Masters section on September 9, 2019.