How hard is it to do the right thing? To see beyond the lines drawn in the sand, recognize the evil within your own people, and have the courage to act even when almost nobody is there to witness it?
These sorts of questions and ponderings are at the heart of A Hidden Life, the ninth feature film from director Terrence Malick, a film that centers its story around Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who refuses to swear loyalty to Adolf Hitler after being drafted into the war and becomes a conscientious objector which leads to a life of imprisonment.
On the surface, this story seems ripe for a Hollywood-style story: People yell and scream at one another and offer grand statements of morals over right and wrong. The glamour might be spruced up to give the subject no weight and importance and the lead may sway people to their side for a happy ending.
Clocking in at almost three hours (174 minutes), the movie takes its time with storytelling. Anyone who has spent at least one film with Malick as its chief storyteller knows what to expect.
And Malick isn’t interested in any of that.
The story of Franz Jägerstätter is not one of big heroic importance. He didn’t lead a group or a movement to challenge the Nazis. He didn’t get any press coverage at all. Franz lived in a small village working day-in and day-out on his farm with his family. When he objects to the Nazi war effort and is placed in jail, the characters frequently keep telling the audience, what does it matter? It won’t change the world. Nobody knows who you are.
Doing When No One is Looking
Malick’s story is about courage is worthy of attention and contemplation. It’s easy to stand up to do the right thing when you have people behind you watching and working with you. But what if you don’t?
What are the consequences you face? How do your fellow countrymen see who you really are? How do they treat your family as a result? What happens when the only people who love and support your passion is hundreds of miles away and only share their feelings via letters?
Malick’s story shows just how hard it is to make the right choice. Namely, how there is more to consider than just yourself in the process.
Perfectly titled, A Hidden Life, Malick places you as the viewer in the same audacious position that Franz and his wife Fani (played by Valerie Pachner) are in.
Again, at 174 minutes, this is a long tale. Typically, when a movie feels long, it is because the audience feels the story isn’t working. Now, while this movie could have stood to shave some of its runtime, the length actually works in its favor.
This is an inescapable reality and conflict from Franz as we spend years with him. The true test of his defiance is seen through how his resilience under the crushing weight of years of imprisonment and pleading from his countrymen.
It reminded me of the underrated Martin Scorsese film, Silence. This was a film about a test of faith under doubt (along with a myriad of other themes that aren’t as relative to this comparison). That movie clocked in at 161 minutes and by the end, you felt like you endured just like Andrew Garfield’s character did. It’s a similar feeling here.
Like Silence, this is also Malick grappling with religious theme and faith. Malick has dealt with religion in his films before and Franz’s own catholic faith is put front and center here. He looks beyond this world, beyond the institutions of his faith to try to find what the right thing is to do. Spirituality plays a big role in Malick’s body of work. Whether or not you are religious (I am not personally), you can still get swept up in the soul of Malick’s film language. The way the camera lingers over nature is surely a cliche of Malick, but the way he frames his characters against the wide and big mountain range is truly awe-inspiring.
Malick’s camera glides and captures nature in a way I haven’t seen any other filmmaker done.
He juxtaposes Franz’s story with a world bigger than us. The scenes of nature in all its beauty and enmity suggest something transcendental. Malick is in the business of myth-making. He frames Franz into the form of a Christ-like figure, makes the environment play a bigger role in the tone of the piece, and uses his quintessential poetic style of fragmented edits and dream-like montages to walk Franz into the realm of that myth.
Under a different hand, this story would certainly be more heightened with additional dramatic platitudes. Malick’s films always walk a balance between visual expression and narrative. A Hidden Life is more narrative-driven than say To The Wonder but Malick’s style of visual abstraction and esoteric framing hasn’t been diminished.
You have to like Malick’s style to truly appreciate this movie. For me, I find Malick’s style transfixing. I may have didn’t enjoy the length of this feature, but I also never felt like I fell out of its spell either.
If you don’t like Malick, then this isn’t going to sway you. For those that are willing to give over to his prose-like narration, and the surreal camera will find an experience unlike any other this year, this story is an affect of emotion. I don’t think it’s quite as good as Tree of Life (which remains one of my favorite movies of the decade) but it is one of my favorites of the year. It’s emotionally restless and transports you in a way that you never want to look away from.