Terrence Malick is the only Hollywood director to have translated a book by German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. I haven’t checked, but I’m fairly confident that Cecil B. DeMille or Steven Spielberg never felt the urge to dabble in the impenetrable utterances of the sage of Freiburg.
Before he began making movies Malick lectured in philosophy. His debut feature, Badlands (1973), was a smash hit and remains a revered cult movie. Between his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), and his third, The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick went into self-imposed exile in Paris, where he wrote scripts. Once the most desultory of directors, in recent years he has become prolific. A Hidden Life is his sixth movie since 2011.
This burst of activity has not made Malick’s work any less contentious. Revered by some for his willingness to defy mainstream conventions, others complain that his movies are meandering and opaque. My own view lies somewhere in the middle. I can admire Malick’s courage in making films that resist the commercial imperatives of Hollywood, but have felt wearied by the apparent randomness of his dialogue and storylines.
As these films have been largely autobiographical, Malick has walked a tight-rope between productive self-reflection and mere self-indulgence. Although we each feel a burning interest in our own lives, this doesn’t mean that others will necessarily share that interest.
He has struck out in a very different direction in A Hidden Life, which tells the story of Franz Jägerstëtter, a conscientious objector who defied Hitler’s call to arms during the Second World War. This time there’s a very precise script and no obvious autobiographical overtones. A Hidden Life is Malick’s most accessible film in years, but it’s not going to appeal to everyone.
At almost three hours it will test the endurance of less-motivated viewers. Even during the preview there was a steady trickle of figures stumbling toward the exits in the dark. The other problem – which tends to exacerbate concerns about the length of the movie – is a slow-building sense of tragedy that draws us little by little into the abyss, as we watch Franz grow ever more stubborn and unrelenting. I don’t know if Malick intended to tell one of those ‘uplifting’ stories in which personal tragedy is transmuted into a triumph of the human spirit, but audiences are more likely to leave this film in a state of depression.
The compensation – if that’s what it is – comes in the form of sweeping vistas of the Austrian countryside, replete with lush, green fields, craggy mountains and stormy skies. It’s an exercise in the Romantic sublime, tinged with fear and grandeur. Yet this ode to Mother Nature only tends to make Franz’s protest seem more futile. Nature may be bigger than the Nazis, but that doesn’t mean one can ignore them and concentrate solely on the heavens.
The plot, based on a true story, is simple. Franz (played with conviction by Auguste Diehl) is a humble farmer from the village of St. Radegund in upper Austria who is fiercely opposed to Hitler and the war. Franz undertakes basic training like the rest of his countrymen, but due to his religious convictions, he is repulsed by the growing wave of nationalist sentiment, the xenophobia and militarism that has begun to infect his village. He can’t bring himself to say “Heil Hitler”. He won’t donate to the army, and most crucially of all, he refuses to swear an oath of allegiance to the Führer.
This leads to Franz’s imprisonment in an army fortress and his transfer to Berlin, where he will be put on trial for treason. Meanwhile his wife Frani (Valerie Pachner) her sister, his three small daughters and his elderly mother, are left to fend for themselves. Not only do they have to cope with the heavy burden of the farm work, they attract the hatred and scorn of their neighbours.
The lawyer appointed for Franz’s defence tells him, over and over, that he need only sign a paper pledging his allegiance, and he can go free to work as a medical orderly. He can save his life and bring succour to his family. The village priest pleads with him to sign, saying that God attends only to what is in one’s heart, not on a piece of paper. This makes no impression on Franz, whose resolution is impregnable.
The entire duration of Franz’s arrest and imprisonment is only a few months but it is told in such an attentuated manner it feels as if years have passed. His courage, which borders on monomania, touches many others along the way, including an elderly judge at his trial (Bruno Ganz), who calls him into his office for a private interrogation.
There are deranged bullies among Franz’s captors but others who show a more humane dimension. The same goes for his fellow villagers, who are filled with resentment and anger, but ultimately act as if ashamed of their own weakness.
A Hidden Life raises a long list of moral dilemmas which are teased out in Franz’s conversations with the priest, the bishop, the miller, an artist, the judge, and his fellow prisoners. For instance, is it right for a man to sacrifice his life for an abstract principle when it will cause pain and hardship to his family? Does an oath signed without conviction cause offence in God’s eyes?
It may be purely coincidental that the release of this movie comes at a time when the senators of the Republican Party are acting in a manner in which wilful expediency and self-preservation are the orders of the day, but there is a message for the politicians. Franz will go to his death rather than swear a false oath, but the oath each senator swore in last week’s impeachment trial has been blithely discarded with no moral scruples. Not one of them could watch this movie and feel it was anything less than a personal condemnation.
Franz’s life was a “hidden” one, but his steadfast attachment to what he felt to be true and right has made him into one of history’s heroes – in 2017 he was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI. Today, the motto of the Christian crusaders – magna est veritas, et praevalebit (truth is great and will prevail) – is looking decidedly old-fashioned. It’s much more fun to wallow in convenient falsehoods that pander to one’s prejudices. The truth may not be easy to swallow, but if you can sit through three agonising hours of this movie you will have done your penance to God, and to art.
A Hidden Life
Written & directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Auguste Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, Bruno Ganz, Michael Nyqvist, Kark Markovics
USA/Germany, rated PG, 174 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 8 February, 2020