Based on real events, A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Franz Jägerstätter (August Dieh), who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. When the Austrian peasant farmer, a devout Catholic, is faced with the threat of execution for treason, it is his unwavering faith and his love for his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and children that keeps his spirit alive.
With Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, you will either be deeply moved as I was, wanting to give Malick (who both wrote and directed the film) a “Holy High Five” for again being the spiritual master of Hollywood filmmakers, or instead, putting your head in your hands thinking, “Ayeyeye, not again. Malick has fallen prey again to voice over whispering and dreamy cloud watching with no discernible plot.” Rotten Tomatoes‘ consensus among critics reads, “Ambitious and visually absorbing, A Hidden Life may prove inscrutable to non-devotees — but for viewers on Malick’s wavelength, it should only further confirm his genius.”
On behalf of the “Holy High Fivers”, there is a frustration over why the beauty and profound depth of Malick’s films are not appreciated. But like a parable, unless the “eyes and ears” of one’s heart is open, the treasured hidden mystery will not be found. A Hidden Life, although quite a sophisticated film, like all literary classics, must be experienced to be appreciated. The hidden treasure of A Hidden Life is waiting for anyone willing to be guided by the cinematic methods of Malick, who guides his directees like a great spiritual director guides those in his care. What awaits are many hidden gems to be discovered beneath the plot of Franz Jägerstätter objecting to an Oath of Fidelity to Hitler and to facing death.
You will experience being invited into the struggling and unsettled conscious of Franz (as well as your own), being pressured to be a loyal countryman who kills in the name of the Third Reich. Knowing what we know about Hitler today, it may appear to be an easy decision for viewers today sitting in the comfort of their seats. But A Hidden Life succeeds in showing that this will be no easy decision, with unaffected innocent bystanders, including the audience. This decision and its many complexities tests the moral core—not only of souls in 1940’s Austria, but of each and every soul in the world today.
This is a film that will challenge viewers to embrace the true, good, and beautiful as presented through the transcendent and eternal values of love and marriage, family, loyalty to God and country, and how that translates into giving courageous witness to an authentic justice, and what it means to be truly a free human being.
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life takes its title from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a quote from which opens the film and anchors the plot:
…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical 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.
Many trusted and beloved voices of fellow villagers, friends—even the parish priest and bishop—weigh in on Franz’s conscience in what they see as justification for taking the Oath of Fidelity to Hitler. For one, to not do so would be shameful and bring great dishonor to fellow countrymen, even Franz’s own blood relatives, who have shed blood and died for the well-being of the fatherland they currently enjoy. It is, they says, not an act of courage but of cowardice to resist fighting for country.
The weight of Franz’s conscience is increased with relation to his family. Some critics might see the first part of the film as just painfully long scenes of Franz’s simple life in his picturesque mountain village. However, these scenes actually endear the viewer to the beautiful, God-centered love that Franz and his wife share, and the three daughters who are expressions of that love. This love actually causes him to waver in his resolve to resistance because of the painful consequences it will bring upon his beloved family. However, it is his strong, hand-plowing, God-fearing wife who applies pressure to Franz in another dimension. She wants him to be true to the God-given course of resistance. She suggests the family can run away into the mountains together or suffer imprisonment and death as a family. What is so impressive about this love is not only its beautiful human quality, but how it is grounded in Franz and Franziska both putting and loving God first and foremost.
It is the faith dimension, with its eternal and temporal implications, that builds to be the largest weight on Franz’s conscience. What does it mean to act with true justice? What is true freedom? One fellow villager interjects into Franz’s conscience, “Better to suffer justice than to do it.” In other words, people will not be moved to justice so much by grandiose expressions of anger, rage, and self-righteous shouts and demands. Rather, people are moved to justice by observing the humble, seemingly inconsequential, non-judgmental, suffering love of those who willingly give witness to it.
Many individuals Franz encounters try to sway him from his principled ways by saying that his actions are hidden from the world and will not change anything or anyone. But it is in these very encounters with friends, Nazi guards, and officers that Franz’s quiet and steadfast resolve impacts their consciences.
The late Bruno Ganz plays Leuben, one of Franz’s final judges. He invites him into his office, after a preliminary trial that condemned him to death. Leuben tries one more time to help him see the folly of holding true to his ways. “No one will know, nothing will change. Sign this Oath of Fidelity and you will go free.” Franz smiles and says that he is already free. A visibly troubled Leuben says, “Do you judge me? What makes you right?” I could not help but think of Pontius Pilate as he stood in judgment within his own conscience, as he faced Jesus Christ, when he asked, “What is truth?”
In fact, the film plays out much like Jesus’ temptation in the desert and, eventually, the way to the Cross, where many voices along the way cried out to Jesus, “Is this necessary? What will it accomplish? You are hurting your mother for her to see this! You are risking the lives of your followers!” The Cross of Jesus has proven to be the greatest act of suffering justice that heals and confounds consciences today.
Shakespeare is globally considered a genius, the greatest playwright in the world. But Shakespeare’s language is universally known to be a big hurdle to understanding what he is saying. However, it is also universally known that it is well worth the struggle to understand his work. Similarly, though Malick may not be another Shakespeare, his work, as with A Hidden Life, might require a bit of effort to uncover the treasure to be revealed in the hearts of those who are open to it. It is well worth the time and effort, as all prayerful reflection is. You will, I think, leave the movie theater (or computer screen), with your soul challenged and edified!
• A Hidden Life had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019 and will be theatrically released in the United States on December 13, 2019. Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including violent images).
• Trailer for A Hidden Life:
(Editor’s note: This review was slightly edited for clarity on December 10, 2019.)
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