A Hidden Life is both the most Christian and the most political of Terrence Malick’s films. At 173 minutes, it’s also the longest, surpassing The Thin Red Line by three minutes. While some may balk at the expansive running time, Malick makes every minute count in this real-life story about Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, portrayed here by August Diehl. The film was originally titled Radegund, the name of the edenic mountain village where Franz and his beloved wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), reside with their three young daughters. Theirs is a simple, peaceful life of farming, family, and faith. All this is upended by the growing influence of the Third Reich and the onset of WWII. While Franz’s story may not be as well-known as similar Christians who resisted Hitler (namely Dietrich Bonhoeffer), he was declared a martyr and beatified by the Roman Catholic Church after his execution.
A Hidden Life opens with historical black-and-white film footage of Hitler and Nazi rallies, a stark contrast both visually and tonally to the wide, lush landscape shots of the Austrian mountains. True to Malick’s style, the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, every image soaking with a sense of sacramentality and awe. There are other trademark Malick motifs here, including fields of wheat waving in the wind, prayerful voiceover narration, and improvisatory golden hour sunlit shots of human beings frolicking in God’s good creation. The mise-en-scène is detailed and delightful, especially the Austrian village and surrounding landscape; it feels like we’ve been transported through time into this quiet corner of the world. Yet this is also Malick’s most conventional narrative in recent years, perhaps even since Badlands. For those who are weary of Malick’s recent elliptical and elusive cinematic fare—particularly To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song—A Hidden Life may feel refreshing for its rootedness in historicity and traditional chronological storytelling.
Yet metaphor, montage, and mystery are all still present in A Hidden Life. The love story of Franz and Fani unfolds with poetic rhythms, beginning with a motorcycle ride through their idyllic country. When Franz is called up into the military, he initially goes, albeit hesitantly. He’s sent home to farm without ever seeing combat, but something deeply troubles him about the Nazis and the war. “Don’t they know evil when they see it?” a villager whispers to Franz, uttering the words he cannot yet say aloud. While the community eventually pays lip service to Hitler’s ideologies, Franz cannot utter the words or raise the salute and retain his integrity. When the day finally comes and the bicycle messenger arrives with the fateful summons, Franz simply stands silent with his arms at his sides while fellow Austrians pledge allegiance to Hitler. This is a historical story of a beatified saint, so it’s hardly a spoiler to say Franz ends up imprisoned and put on trial for treason. There are no big speeches, no political fervor or rallying. Instead, Franz does not speak; he is led like a lamb to the slaughter, silent like a sheep before its shearers.
A Hidden Life is just as much Fani’s tale as it is Franz’s. It’s truly a romance, a love story about husband and wife. When Franz returns home after his brief military service, the pair can’t keep their hands and lips off each other. It’s beautiful to see such a committed, healthy marriage on screen, one informed by their Christian faith. Both of their faiths are tested when he is imprisoned, and she is left at home to care for the farm and children. She is supported by her spirited, single older sister Resie (Maria Simon) and Franz’s widowed mother. They write letters back and forth; the film credits their real-life letters as source material. Fani often wonders in her prayers to God if He is even listening; if she faithfully knocks, will the door be opened? Pachner is exceptionally good in her performance, imbuing Fani with reverence and resolve in both her posture and her prayers. Indeed, Fani is a woman of noble character, and her husband and children rightly call her blessed.
A Hidden Life presents its Christian heritage unashamedly even as it exhorts and critiques the institutional church. The film is biblically rich, infused with scriptural references through Franz and Fani’s prayers, as well as visual symbols and narrative themes. Churches and priests play active roles in the narrative, and God is often directly addressed. For instance, Franz prays a version of Psalm 23 aloud while waiting for his trial in a German prison; as the camera hovers through the hallways, the biblical words offer hope in the midst of apparent despair, the Good Shepherd restoring the prisoner’s soul. Yet questions remain. Will the darkness of evil be overcome? Will the spirit of the Antichrist—a term mentioned multiple times by different characters—reign in this world? Is God the author of suffering? Or is there salvation in Christ and the possibility of eternal life and light? Can faithfulness to God make a difference in this world?
This latter question is most overtly raised by the wonderful actor Bruno Ganz, who is briefly present in the role of a Nazi judge at Franz’s tribunal hearing. Pulling Franz aside during a recess, the Pilate figure of Ganz asks, “Do you judge me?” Silent for so long, Franz finally speaks, replying that he does not judge the elder man, but he also cannot do what he knows to be wrong and unjust. After Franz leaves, the camera lingers on Ganz’s hands as he sinks into the chair where Franz was seated. It’s ever so brief, but the scene is a moment of subtle transformation, perhaps even conversion. The Nazi had told the condemned man that no one will know his story and his actions won’t make a bit of difference. Yet here is A Hidden Life, a film made by one of the greatest living filmmakers working today, premiering at Cannes and offering us an inspirational glimpse of humble Christ-like resistance in the face of systemic evil.
I said A Hidden Life is Malick’s most political and most Christian film, and I believe the two go hand in hand—Malick is raising crucial, cruciform questions for the Christian Church today, whether we will wed ourselves to political powers who commit injustices and perpetuate lies, or rather, we will pledge allegiance to the kingdom of heaven and its King, the One who suffered injustice at the hand of an empire and compels us to love our neighbors and enemies.
Two scenes strike me as particularly relevant for the politics of the contemporary American church. First, the town mayor of St. Radegund goes on a drunken rant about how the Nazis have cleaned up the nation, how they’ve made it great again by driving out the lazy and impure immigrants. Franz walks away sadly, heartbroken by the seemingly good man’s bigoted views. “The mask is off,” the narration whispers. Second, before he is arrested, Franz has a conversation with an artist who paints frescoes on church walls. He observes the painting before him of Jesus, a haloed figure with a sense of peace on his face. The artist calls this a “comfortable Christ” instead of the “true Christ” because he (the artist) has only lived in comfort and ease. “How can I show what I haven’t lived?” he asks Franz. In the words of the Gospel narrator, let the reader understand.