“What good will it do?”
This question consumes Terrence Malick’s newest epic A Hidden Life. Based on a true story, the film follows the struggles of Austrian farmer Franz Jaägerstaätter (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska, or “Fani” (Valerie Pachner), as Franz refuses to fight for the Third Reich in World War II. The aforementioned question might be answered by a quote from the novel Middlemarch by George Eliot (pseudonym of Victorian author Mary Ann Evans), which is included at the end of the film: “…for 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.”
According to Evans (who, like Franz in the film, questioned her religion, eventually abandoning Christianity and grappling with religious themes in many of her works), small acts of rebellion leave a lasting impact, even if the actors are forgotten. Fortunately, Jaägerstaätter has not been forgotten; in fact, the Catholic church declared him a martyr. But that wasn’t until 2007, and his story was not well-known until over 20 years after his death. Here, Malick exposes the world’s ignorance of Jaägerstaätter’s sacrifices by throwing us into his life, which is not a blip in history but an entire secret world.
Malick starts by introducing the paradise his plot will soon disrupt. He opens on a breathtaking shot of Franz and Fani, damp with sweat and dew, hacking away at the lush green grass of the West Austrian countryside. The scene is quiet besides the couple’s labored panting and the rhythmic sounds of their scythes slicing through the leaves. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer uses Malick’s signature wide-angled, short-lensed camera style to achieve a sprawling, anamorphic effect that stretches across the misty mountains and wispy blue skies.
The Jaägerstaätters are the Adam and Eve of an Aryan Eden. Both are beautiful, strong, and sturdy, with features Hitler would likely find approving. The same goes for their three rosy-cheeked children. Franz and Fani are good Christians as well, with church officials as close friends and religious ornaments lining their walls. Theirs is a life of wood and hay, donkeys and lambs, burlap bed sheets and dirt under the fingernails. “Life was so simple then,” Fani narrates. Their existence in the small village of Sankt Radegund is uncomplicated, elevated, isolated, protected, and thematically ignorant.
While Franz is aware the Reich is “killing innocent people,” his privilege allows him to silently oppose the war until he is called to action. The first time, he obliges and serves at a military base in Enns, away from armed conflict. The next time, he refuses to serve, confiding to his priest that he believes the Nazis to be evil. He is sent away to jail, leaving Fani behind with his mother, their children, and Fani’s sister Resie (Maria Simon). Word of Franz’s rebellion gets around the village and causes Fani to become ostracized, but she stands by Franz until the very end, when he must choose between swearing allegiance to the Reich or facing the guillotine.
Franz is not fighting for a cause. As other characters constantly remind him, he has no greater plan—not the faintest idea of how, if at all, his actions will affect the outcome of the war. He is fighting primarily for his principles. And although Franz stands by those principles with unflinching stoicism, he starts to question their origins and significance.
Franz refuses to swear loyalty to the Reich for two reasons—because it is wrong, and because it is un-Christian. The relationship between those two gets fuzzy. Does religion dictate ethics, or do ethics dictate religion? Some people in Franz’s life ask him why he doesn’t just lie; he could easily pledge allegiance to Hitler with his words while rejecting him in his heart. Nonetheless, he refuses. Is his motivation ethical or doctrinal? Does he take issue with the act of complicity—giving in and contributing to the Reich’s power—or with the lie, the contradiction, the sin? Perhaps these two are initially one in the same, but as the film goes on, we begin to wonder—as does Franz, presumably—how they align.
At least, this is only what I imagine Franz’s inner conflict to be, as Malick offers little supporting evidence to confirm it. Most of Franz’s lines take the form of whispery, contemplative voiceovers that say a lot without saying much at all. He prays to God, questions his faith, and yearns for his wife and children, but doesn’t say much about his act of rebellion. I don’t need the film to spell everything out for us, but wouldn’t it be nice to at least know why Franz is making the most important decision of his life? Even if Franz himself has no idea, let’s at least hear him admit it. What is he thinking when people ask, “What good will it do?”
This is my main qualm with the film. I love a slow burn, but that requires something to burn at all, and A Hidden Life has only a flicker. Not enough time is spent exploring Franz’s thought process, and too much is spent on Malick’s own self-gratification. He ultimately chooses indulgence over substance, lingering on pretty things that don’t contribute to the plot. I came to watch a movie, but sometimes this was more like watching someone eat fondue, dipping bread into a vat of hot cheese just to admire the artful drip of their own handiwork, then chewing theatrically with their eyes closed in satisfaction. Chewing just like that, for three whole hours.
Sure, the visuals were stunning. During moments where I could actually feel the coarse wool of Fani’s sweater or smell the mountain morning air, I even wondered to myself (half-joking) whether my screening was in 4D. But some images lost their magic after being shown so excessively and deliberately. For some reason, Malick is obsessed with showing hands sifting through soil over and over again, which would make sense in the context of the Jaägerstaätters’ agricultural lifestyle if it were depicted more casually. Instead of establishing these things as normal—albeit sacred—aspects of Franz and Fani’s lives, Malick turns them into props and set pieces whose artifice is palpable. I no longer see Fani running her hands through the Austrian dirt—instead, I see Valerie Pachner acting on a film set while Malick gives a chef’s kiss behind the camera. His style has grown to hinder itself, dangling off the film like decor and distracting the audience.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars
Many are calling A Hidden Life Malick’s best since his 2011 Palme d’Or-winning Tree of Life, but that’s likely thanks to the low bar set by his more recent films To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song. Here, Malick misses an opportunity to delve into Franz’s emotional crisis and instead opts for a superficial faith-questioning narrative full of unnecessary shots and internal monologues. However, the cinematography is remarkable, the cast is excellent (including Michael Nyqvist in his final role), and the brutal last ten minutes are highly memorable. It’s also alarmingly relevant to our current political crises, as people have already started picking out quotes like, “A darker time is coming, and men will be more clever. They don’t confront the truth. They just ignore it.” Despite my qualms, I believe A Hidden Life’s existence is a good thing and hope it will inspire people to stand up against injustices in our world today.