I’m not a religious person, but there’s been something about Martin Scorsese’s 2016 drama Silence, about a pair of Jesuit priests in the 17th century who risk their lives to spread Christianity that has really stayed with me. The idea that someone could hold their beliefs and their faith so deeply that they could literally risk their life for it was truly a staggering one to me. In that film, all they needed to do to save themselves was to denounce God—to just speak it and they would be free. But their faith and devotion wouldn’t even allow them to speak against their faith, which seemed totally insane to me. I kept thinking, nothing can change what’s in your heart, what does it matter what you speak or what you do? But perhaps that movie has really stuck with me because maybe, just maybe, I’ve realized that true faith and belief is actually the other way around: it is, in fact, what you do that matters.
Terrence Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life, strikes much of the same chord as Silence did, but Malick approaches the conundrum of faith in a different way. For Malick, faith is more than an adherence to a spiritual ideal, it’s a belief in the way the world should be, how an individual fits into that world and the actions they take to honor both the world and himself. Malick has never shied away from resonance in his films, but in A Hidden Life he finds a way to speak to all of us at once, daring us to search our hearts and souls not for what moves us, but what defines us—and challenges us to figure out how far we would go to defend it.
Simply put, A Hidden Life is the story of one man standing up for what he believes in. Franz Jägerstätter, played by August Diehl, lives happily high up in the Austrian Alps with his wife and three children. It is 1943, but the war that rages below is a distant concern to Franz, as he and his family enjoy an idyllic existence in the lush green mountains above the clouds. But war has a way of seeping into even the smallest crevasses, and Franz is called to fulfill his mandatory military training. While in training, Franz comes to realize that the Nazi agenda doesn’t quite fit into his vision of the world. He is a simple farmer who doesn’t know much beyond God and family, but even he recognizes the evil that lurks just beneath the shiny Nazi surface.
Franz returns to his village after training adamant in his belief that there was no way he could fight for Hitler. This presents a true dilemma, of course, considering the newly imposed law requiring all Austrians to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. His only hope is to pray that he doesn’t get called. Life goes back to normal, but Franz and his wife, Franziska, played by Valerie Pachner, grow more and more troubled as they are forced to confront the inevitable. The consequences of his defiance would be severe: imprisonment, possibly even death. There might even be repercussions for his family— he could literally lose everything. He considers every option, searches his heart and his soul for answers. A deeply religious man, Franz prays for guidance and discusses it with his priest. And when he does finally get called, he is forced to decide. And, just as in Silence, a simple, small moment when a man stands by his deepest convictions instead of bowing to what’s easy changes his entire life.
Terrence Malick movies are never simple. They are always thematically rich and deeply philosophical. What makes A Hidden Life stand apart is the accessibility of the subject. He’s not exploring the creation of the world as he did in The Tree of Life, nor the vagaries of war as he did in The Thin Red Line. His themes are usually complicated and rich, multi-dimensional and sometimes contradictory. But in A Hidden Life, he takes on the concept of good vs evil in the most accessible way for a 21st century audience. Hitler and the Nazis are the clearest and most understandable example in our time of the purest form of human evil that can exist. With the gift of our perspective, it’s easy to understand Franz’s moral duty to oppose them, but the essence of this story is Franz doesn’t have the gift of our perspective. He doesn’t have the evidence of Nazi evil the way we do now. But what he does know is their lack of morality and that is enough for a good man to resist. It is a monumental act, especially in the eyes of history, to stand up against Hitler and all he represents, but consider how monumental it must have been for those who actually did it back then, without the benefit of historical knowledge.
And that’s what makes A Hidden Life so powerful. It is about one man’s personal act of resistance, of standing up for what he believes in, no matter the consequences. Deeper still is the idea of how one single person can affect the world, if at all. Do we all have an obligation to stand up for our convictions? Do we each live according to our principles? What defines a meaningful life? Can one person make a difference? These questions are as relevant today and they have ever been. It is so easy to embrace the comforts of life and take the easy road, it is hard to follow the path of our conscience, where there are obstacles and resistance. When you have the choice between what is right and hard and what is wrong and easy, which do you choose?
It’s all incredibly deep and poetic, and I would expect nothing less from a Malick film. August Diehl’s performance as Franz is utterly shattering, as he embodies the conflict and the serenity of a man of faith and morality. Pachner and Michael Nyqvist also deliver moving moments, and a single scene featuring Bruno Ganz in his final film role is perfect. But, as with any Malick film, the human performances always take a back seat to Malick’s visionary cinematic eye. His signature cinematography that features sweeping vistas and loving shots of nature, the earth, the sky and water has never been more gorgeous. The mountains of Austria are one of the most beautiful and idyllic places on earth and Malick lets his lens show off the pristine perfection and serenity, as the first half of the film is spent cavorting in a natural paradise, green grass, white clouds and rich brown soil. Malick’s style puts us into a trance as he transforms a physical setting into a poetic ideal. It is glorious and magical.
I didn’t think any film could touch or move me the way The Tree of Life did, but A Hidden Life comes very close. If you hated The Tree of Life because it was too obscure and didn’t follow a narrative (as many did), then I implore you to give A Hidden Life a try. You will get to experience Terrence Malick in all his transcendence as a filmmaker, but you will also have a real story to follow, a character to relate to and a message to live with. A Hidden Life is another Terrence Malick masterpiece of conscience and beauty and another reminder of everything film can do and be.