Quite early on in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, we see what should be a carefree moment for an Austrian farming family. Playing a game, a blindfolded Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) tries to find his wife and kids, who circle around him dangling little cans and trying not to get caught. By this point, we’ve only heard vague rumblings of the war that will pry Franz away from a happily secluded existence in the mountains with his young daughters and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner). But the way Malick shoots this little game, we feel the unease gathering: The camera is just a little too low, the lens just a little too wide, the silence — punctuated by gently rattling cans — ever so ominous. It’s a subtle layer of meaning over a glimpse of the everyday, and it offers a fine example of the director’s uniquely cinematic ability to take the most unexpected, throwaway moment and give it a new emotional valence. (He does something similar in the opening scenes of Tree of Life, where the image of a child casually stepping into the shadows behind a tree foretells his subsequent death as a teenager.) An instance of play becomes an intimation of apocalypse.
A Hidden Life is based on the very real story of Franz Jägerstätter, a devout Austrian farmer who, upon being called to serve in the army, refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler, and was imprisoned and executed as a result. It’s not just the loyalty oath that disturbs him. Franz sees and detests what’s happening around him. Some in his village are ambivalent about war and have no use for the Nazis, but they are also afraid to stand up. Others, such as the town’s dime-store-führer mayor (played with dizzying, spittle-flecked fury by veteran Austrian actor Karl Markovics), find themselves liberated by the racism and hate swirling all around.
Though he was beatified by the Church decades later, Franz’s act of defiance earned more than the official condemnation of his country; the Jägerstätters were treated as outcasts and traitors by fellow Austrians well into the 1990s. Telling a historical tale this time around, Malick is more linear than usual in his filmmaking. You won’t find the delirious, extended montages of Knight of Cups or the galactic scope of Tree of Life here. Instead, Franz winds up in a series of almost philosophical dialogues, with priests, bureaucrats, prisoners, neighbors. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to call these loose monologues, since Franz remains mostly quiet throughout. But his very presence poses a question to these individuals about the problem of evil. “Which side are you on, and why?” he might as well be asking.
Franz’s beliefs are clear, but he also knows that the decision to resist will lead to his death, his family’s abandonment, and decades of solitude and pain. No one else around him dares to take this leap, even though very few of them are full-throated Nazis. To understand Franz’s dilemma, we have to project ourselves into the mind of a relatively simple man in a period of terror and confusion. The film doesn’t directly mention the Holocaust (which Franz obviously wouldn’t have known about), and maybe there is something perverse about making a movie about how hard it was to be a good Christian at a time when other religions were faring far, far worse. One might also argue, however, that the latter fact speaks to the importance of Jägerstätter’s story. Maybe evil doesn’t always announce itself. Maybe it crawls in under cover of our aggressions, our suspicions, our weaknesses and comforts and fears.
Alongside the various philosophical exchanges, Malick still prefers to move his narratives forward with immersive collages of ordinary life instead of what we might typically call “incident.” Franz and Fani’s dilemma is often conveyed through passages of farm work and mundane interaction. Especially after Franz’s imprisonment, hate poisons Fani’s world. Every harvest and church ceremony and market visit and village stroll, it seems, provides an opportunity for those around her to express their contempt. As in much of Malick’s recent output, movement often trumps dialogue. Half the drama comes from the way the characters circle each other, or close in, or drift away; A Hidden Life is, among other things, a clandestine dance movie.
Throughout, Malick and his cinematographer, Jörg Widmer (who was the cameraman and second-unit cinematographer on the director’s last few collaborations with Emmanuel Lubezki), use extreme wide angles, which distort the outer edges of the frame and heighten distances, so that anyone stepping away from the protagonists looks like they’re walking into eternity. The twisted, fish-eye look transforms the lovely landscape of Radegund, the small town in the Austrian Alps where the Jägerstätters live, into a kind of spiritual battlefield. The green fields curve in such a way as to betray the contours of the Earth, while the ever-present horizon, filled with little houses and town spires and forests and clouds and mountains behind mountains, feels like it encompasses all of creation. The combination of symmetry and distortion in these compositions also recalls the way a fresco on a rounded church ceiling might curve toward a central, celestial figure. Maybe that comparison sounds like a stretch — but know that the movie is filled with many glimpses of such church ceilings, sometimes even intercut with life on the fields of Radegund.
Indeed, an early visit Franz has with a church painter might serve as Malick’s clearest statement about what he’s trying to do in A Hidden Life: “I help people look up from those pews and dream,” the painter says. “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did.” Is this a sly nod to those who might wonder what the point is in 2019 of watching a man oppose the greatest evil of the 20th century? The painter’s not having it: “They would have murdered those whom they adore,” he scoffs, and we suspect that he’s correct. We shouldn’t be so smug as to assume that we would always know the right thing to do, or even be brave enough to do it, Malick seems to say. A true act of resistance should crack our universe open.