By Erica Abeel
Even with my caveats, A Hidden Life raises filmmaking to heights that will thrill Terrence Malick fans.
A Hidden Life, directed by Terrence Malick. Screening at Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square Cinema beginning December 20.
How do you review a film that’s more sacramental experience than entertainment?
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s latest soliloquy directed at God, is such a film. Based on a true story, it virtually beatifies conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter, a farmer from the idyllic hamlet of St. Radegund in the Austrian Alps. At the onset of WWII Franz refused allegiance to Hitler, held firm despite pleas from higher-ups to save his own life, and in 1945 suffered the consequences in an Austrian prison.
The film marks a departure from Malick’s recent airy confections such as To the Wonder, which featured a tongue-tied Ben Affleck and his paramour twirling in the fields at twilight, and lacked any discernible story beyond some vague duel between love and religion. In Wonder Malick’s trademark voice-overs and camera tics flirted with self-parody. A Hidden Life, in contrast, is structured as an arduous quest by Franz (August Diehl) to exercise his God-given free will, as he understands it, and arrive at a course of action he can live with (and die for), though at incalculable cost to a beloved wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), his mother, and three daughters. His journey is all the more remarkable as it clashes with the unanimous acquiescence of the villagers to the Nazi regime. The local clergy and the bishop to whom Franz turns make evasive speeches and talk “duty to family.”
A Hidden Life opens with Franz’s voice-over, “I thought we could build our nest high up in the mountains and fly away,” while the camera pans above the Alpine beauty of Radegund, then melts into black-and-white archival footage of Hitler in a triumphal parade. From that moment Malick had me. You either buy into this filmmaker’s schtick or you don’t.
Malick typically celebrates Nature capital “N” like few other filmmakers, and here his camera all but swoons over the mountain peaks wreathed in mist, the transparent brooks and farm fields, the baroque cupola of the local church rising in the distance. Even the farm animals are photographed with reverence. A collage of images sets forth the marriage idyll of Franz and Fani (in Malick’s signature dreamy voice-over, of course) — “I remember the day we first met” … “We lived above the clouds” … “Your mother, our village, our family …” In keeping with his fetish for family romps, Malick captures them playing blindman’s buff — a sequence that will later resonate in a sinister key. Repeated shots of the couple threshing in the fields will also resonate, you can be sure.
Franz’s troubles begin in 1940 at Enns military base when he refuses to take the Hitler oath as a Wehrmacht conscript. Later he attracts the villagers’ suspicion when he also refuses to contribute money to the veterans. “You will almost certainly be shot,” he’s warned. “I can hear the trains,” Franz says, to what may or may not be a faint rumbling on the sound track. “What’s happened to our country, to the land we love?”
Franz’s intransigence lands him in Tegel prison, conveyed by Malick as an Escher-like hallucination. The brutal acts of the guards alternate with voice-overs adapted from the couple’s actual letters: “Dear husband, greetings from your three little women …” In a crisis of faith, “Others suffer more,” Franz tells his wife. Malick cuts back and forth from prison hell to the purity and enchantment of the mountain village, its russet interiors filmed using natural light. Fani struggles to keep the farm going without her husband — while also torn apart by her husband’s decision.
In the third act the screws tighten — all too predictably — as Nazi officials attempt to persuade Franz to capitulate and buy survival. The profound question posed by the film: is the resistance of a single obscure individual worth the sacrifice of his life? And a second uncomfortable question: what would the viewer do in Franz’s position? “Will your defiance change anything?” an official asks. “What purpose does it serve? … Who outside this court will hear of you? … Do you have a right to do this?”
Franz replies, “Do I have a right not to?”
August Diehl brings a winning simplicity to his portrayal of Franz, avoiding the pitfall of sanctimony; as his wife, Valerie Pachner is enormously affecting, especially in the agonizing moments when she finally embraces Franz’s choice. It’s in the third act, though, that Malick falters, as Franz continues to resist and suffer and so on and so forth, and the film mires down in repetitiveness. A Hidden Life could have been made in 90 minutes instead of its bloated three hour run time, but Malick opts for an immersive ordeal, as if to mirror Franz’s Stations of the Cross. It’s also peculiar that the principals speak English, while the thuggish guards and Nazi officials speak German. It could be objected as well that Malick’s focus on a single Austrian martyr feels unjustified in the context of so many victims of the Holocaust who struggled to survive.
Even with these caveats, A Hidden Life raises filmmaking to heights that will thrill Malick fans, thanks, in part, to the camera work of his D.P., Jorg Widmer. The director’s distinctive visual vocabulary is on full glorious display. Malick treats film as silent movies. There’s little dialogue or, God forbid, exposition and conversation — no, what you get are those haunting voice-overs frequently floating free of any particular image onscreen, and plunging the viewer into a tingly sense of what the French call depaysement (disorientation). Where the hell are we, and who is the speaker addressing?
Add to this the sense, in a Malick film, of intensely inhabiting the present moment, the elation created by a montage of camera shots swooping and circling the characters, usually to a soundtrack that echoes the emotion onscreen. In A Hidden Life, the pathos of a crucial stage in Franz’s journey is underscored by liturgical music by Bach. In addition, the film’s short-lens anamorphic widescreen look distorts whatever appears anywhere other than dead center in a frame. Malick pulls out this aesthetic ruse especially when shooting playful scenes of Franz’s young daughters, who rush up at the viewer in a whoop of high spirits. The director also often likes to place his characters off-axis, truncating their heads and shooting from below, which creates a surreal, dreamlike feel.
Though viewers may balk at its unwieldy length, A Hidden Life keeps a tight focus on this reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which inspired the title: “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.”
In 2007 Franz Jagerstatter was declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and publications. Wild Girls, her most recent novel, was praised by Oprah Magazine as a “libidinous period novel [that] follows three budding feminists through an elite women’s college, the New York art scene, and Allen Ginsberg’s bed, as they redefine womanhood for themselves and future generations.”