There are movies for certain times, and there are times for certain movies. Terrence Malick is definitely a “certain times” filmmaker. You can’t scroll through your social media while watching one of his films. And I’m no Malick expert, but you don’t have to watch much to know that he’s doing something unlike most of what is available. He’s sometimes derided as too arty, too poetic, too philosophical. And it’s unfortunate that many will be put off from watching because of the three-hour run time.
I get all that. He’s a filmmaker, I think, who walks a line between profound and ponderous so that every film is guaranteed reviews falling on either side of that divide. In fact, when The New World came out in 2005, IndieWire cited from reviews of three earlier movies, and they might as well be interchangeable. You could simply rewrite those reviews whenever a Malick film appears.
A Hidden Life is no exception. It is striking how many reviews (you can Google them) believe Malick is striking either a profound or a simplistic note. And yet, it doesn’t seem to me that many of them are able to see what A Hidden Life is. It is profound, but not because of the beauty of Jörg Widmer’s photography. And it is simple, though not simplistic, and not in the way that the reviewers think.
On the surface, the film is easy to grasp. It’s actually (especially for Malick) a fairly straight-forward narrative of a man forced to choose whether he will take an oath of loyalty to Hitler or not, and the consequences of that choice. We know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, partly because of his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. But the story of Franz Jägerstätter (whose time in Tegel prison in fact overlapped with Bonhoeffer’s) and his wife Franziska (Fani) is largely unknown—although the public knowledge of his life must have expanded after his beatification by the Roman Catholic Church in 2007.
That contrast between well-known “heroes” or martyrs to National Socialism and the unknown resisters is at the heart of A Hidden Life, as the title and postscript make clear. Malick concludes the film with a quotation from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric 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.”
From the phrase to the film by way of its title is a straight line, although Malick has now helped to further uncover Jägerstätter’s hidden life (there is at least one biography, another film, and a book of Franz and Fani’s letters) and made it much more “historical.” But what reviewers and critics seem to struggle with is in the first part of the quotation: “the growing good of the world.” How Franz Jägerstätter’s conviction and passive resistance led to the growing good of the world is far more opaque and even indecipherable in an age such as ours. Therein, to me, is the actual brilliance of A Hidden Life.
Rod Dreher puts the problem succinctly, calling the film “a miracle, and the finest evocation of the Gospel ever committed to film.” He writes,
The more I think about it, the more frustrated I am by the inability of many secular critics to understand the film. I am not saying “like” the movie; I’m talking about simply understanding what Malick is trying to say here. It’s perfectly fine to dislike a film, even as you understand clearly what the filmmaker is saying. I’m saying that Malick is speaking a language that modern people in this post-Christian culture simply do not understand (and I am including some Christians in this complaint too). There is a profound lesson in this for all of us.
I don’t know how deeply Malick is committed to the Christian message itself, or if it’s more a matter of the beauty of signs and symbols: his impressive visual style pulling at various strands of scriptural imagery. But however Malick would characterize his own religious perspective, Dreher is right that Malick seems at home with the outlines of the Gospel accounts in a way that either baffles or goes completely unnoticed by those who know Christianity only as a caricature. He points out, for example, a scene where Fani’s sister, Resie, is separating the wheat from the chaff as a reference to John the Baptist’s words in Matthew 3:12.
This was the prophet’s description of what the coming Christ will do: sort the good from the evil. And this is what the drama taking place in that village is doing too: the reaction of the Christian people of that town to the evil of Nazism is testing their faith. Franz and his suffering family are the wheat; the villagers who despise them for their anti-Nazi resistance are the chaff.
But it goes deeper than that, to the fundamental crisis of the Christian faith. When Franz is walking aimlessly with the rest of the inmates, one of them puts the problem starkly: After telling Franz in his cell that he used to be like him, he says in the yard, “Your God abandoned us, like He did your Christ—His Son.”
Here is where the cinematic image retains its power even over the dialogue (which Malick always uses sparingly). There isn’t much verbal description of Franz’s faith during the moments he is at home with his family, though Fani says slightly more. But the image of the crucified Christ suffuses and saturates the entire film. There is the crucifix in the Jägerstätters’ bedroom. There it is in the corner of their living room and in the dining room. There it is beside the road, catching Franz’s attention as he walks by. There it is in the church. Everywhere is the image of Christ, silent, defeated, and ignored. When reviews complain that Franz—or Malick—don’t explain what’s going on, or why he does what he does, they miss the visual forest for the verbal trees.
Franz is caught between two sides of the same apocalypticism. He has a couple friends in the village—including the miller, who is later kind to Fani—who speak, sotto voce, against the darkness of National Socialism. But they are caught up in the same end-of-times rhetoric as their opponents. From their perspective, Nazism is the end of the world, the dying of the light. For the Nazis or their collaborators, the signs of the times are exactly the same, except it is Hitler who will save them from and renew them after their national Götterdämmerung.
Other than his wife, there is no one—not those who support him in one way or another, nor the Nazis who arrest and abuse him—who can even see what he seeks to gain by refusing the oath of loyalty. Just speak the oath and say whatever you want, says his priest (or lawyer, I can’t remember; they’re essentially interchangeable in position). And while everyone knows that the Nazis are the bad guys, I wonder how many people today would hold that Franz is, in the end, making the right decision.
What is at stake in Franz’s decision is misunderstood by those who think that the story of A Hidden Life depicts a simplistic choice between right and wrong, good and evil. It would be easy to be lulled by Malick’s pastoral and majestic shots of mountains and fields and clouds into thinking that Franz is caught between an idealized agrarian lifestyle and the mechanistic and industrial evil of Nazism. It is easy. It all looks very good on the screen, and Franz and Fani are a picture of marital contentment that I’ve rarely, if ever, seen in film (no wonder Malick dedicated the film to his wife, Alexandra).
But that would miss, I think, the subtle shift in Franz’s choice. He is not choosing between rural Austria and industrial Nazism. Everyone around him is, in fact, trying to convince him to choose rural Austria, which would mean precisely choosing to live to an old age with his wife and daughters. For his friendly opponents, the only way to choose that idyll is to make an oath of allegiance to Hitler. And that is the one thing Franz can’t do.
So the question that everyone is asking him remains: what does he gain by refusing to sign a meaningless piece of paper, or pretend outwardly to say something that he doesn’t really mean? In the end, as Franz faces death, it was easy for me to fall into the same pattern: really, what is the big deal? Here A Hidden Life comes close to the other great Christian film of the past few years, Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
Comparing August Diehl’s Franz and Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues show that A Hidden Life isn’t so much a hero or a resistance story as it is a temptation story. The idea is the same in both films: will you do this seemingly inconsequential thing and save your life and the lives of those around you? God won’t be mad at you, will He? Isn’t it better to save your life than to lose it? Come down from the cross, save yourself and others. All you have to do is step on a fumi-e, or sign a paper. Obviously, Rodrigues makes a different choice in the end than does Franz, but the temptation is the same.
Franz, then, hews closely to His Lord, who refuses to speak in His defense, who goes like a sheep to the slaughter, who refuses the final temptation. He and his family face the truth of Jesus’ words: “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Franz isn’t Jesus; there are a few moments toward the end of the film where you can see him visibly about to give in. But it is the promise of Jesus’ own death and resurrection that sustains him. His wife sends a letter with that promise: trust in the Lord, who will make all things right.
In the end, the struggle within Franz and within all Christians is not a struggle between one vision of a nation (the Fatherland) and another; between bucolic Austria and war-hungry Germany. It is between all of that together and the true Fatherland, which Franz says those around him have forgotten. It is the difference between the Reich, ruled by a man who would be god, and—as Franz prays at least twice before he dies—Dein ist das Reich (Thine is the Kingdom), ruled by the God who became Man.
This is the Christian vision fully formed: we live and do what we can here, the best that we can, following our Lord through circumstances where the right and good way isn’t always clear or well-marked. Franz can hardly even speak his conviction. He simply chooses a path and trusts God. And then, at every moment, we long for the coming of the true Kingdom, the true Fatherland—a new earth under a new heavens—which might not be too far off from the Radegund of Franz’ remembering.