For those who've been frustrated by Terrence Malick's plotless, ruminative, meandering post-Tree of Life films, A Hidden Life comes as a relief. Oh, it's still Malickian. This film, too, is ruminative and meandering and contains a lot of those dreamy, whispery voiceovers. ("I thought we could build our nest high up… fly away like birds into the mountains…") Plus, it has all the Nature we've come to expect. In the first hour or so (of the nearly three-hour run time), we see a rabbit, a dog, a sheep, a couple of cows, a few ducks — some viewers may fear they have mistakenly stepped into a theatre screening the biopic of Old MacDonald. But at least there's a plot: something with a beginning, a middle and a moving end. The story is about Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refused to fight for the Third Reich in World War II and was executed in 1943, when he was 36.
It took me a while to settle into the film's woozy rhythms (or rather, take it seriously), mainly because Malick's style has long-since begun to feel like a parody. "Remember the day we first met?" says Franz's wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), trying hard not to make the line sound like a flashback-trigger. I was torn between rolling my eyes and suppressing a snort. Then we get the letters between them, read out via voiceover — or maybe they are just thoughts they are thinking. "My dear husband…" "Oh my wife…" This is the Malick from The Thin Red Line, where Pvt. Bell (the Ben Chaplin character) said things like "My dear wife… I want to come back to you the man I was before…" These musings play out over spectacularly idyllic Alpine scenery: hills, a waterfall, clouds, parents playing with children near fairytale cottages. If Ansel Adams and Rumi made a baby, it would look like this.
Where another filmmaker might have focused on the dramatic twists of his protagonist's life, Malick composes a hymn that feels it could be about anyone suffering
Then, there's the Malickian technique. Jörg Widmer's camera floats towards the characters, as if tethered to a balloon in the vicinity. It floats away from them. The ultra wide angle lenses flatten and distort the image, and the jump-cut editing often reduces dramatic scenes to a series of poses. The music is equally eccentric. At one point, a man's rants are abruptly cut off by a rising violin. Maybe Malick feels the words aren't important. Maybe he feels these conflicts have already been shaped into conventional drama — that is, with powerful lines not being cut off by violins — many times over and he feels there's no need to go there again. But these choices take away the specifics and make everything generic. Franz and Franziska become Man and Woman. Austria, where the story is set, becomes Eden.
That's how it was in The New World and The Thin Red Line, and slowly, this approach proves exceptionally suited to A Hidden Life. This time, I bought Malick's Kool-Aid. Franz is a moral man, a religious man. He is imprisoned by the Germans (for refusing to fight) and mocked and humiliated and tortured, and his story begins to parallel that of Christ. If the Son of God wondered "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", a character here asks, "Who are You and why did You create us?" This tale of a man who holds on to his beliefs in the face of demoniac opposition becomes mythical. The Nazis ponder, too. They say that nothing Franz does will change the course of the war. "He who created the world created evil. Conscience makes cowards of us all." But history knows better.
In Knight of Cups (2015), a priest tells the Christian Bale character, "God shows you his love by sending you suffering." The sentiment felt weird and ponderous there, but here, it fits — for A Hidden Life is about suffering. (Non-Malickians, of course, may smirk that it's the audience that suffers.) God is very much a part of Jägerstätter's story — he was eventually declared a martyr and beatified by the Church. He has a beautiful exchange with an art restorer, who tends to the paintings on the roof of a church. (It looks gorgeous in widescreen, all white marble suffused with God's own light.) The man says, "I paint this suffering but don't suffer myself. I make a living of it." But Franz is different. He cannot separate making a living (i.e. fighting for Hitler) from his suffering. He tells his priest, "If God has given us agency, then we are responsible for what we do, aren't we?"
After the initial portions, I barely noticed the length. A Hidden Life is a war movie, a prison movie, a movie about about a couple. Where another filmmaker might have focused on the dramatic twists of Jägerstätter's life, Malick composes a hymn that feels it could be about anyone suffering. It could be about Joan of Arc. It could be about Prahlada. A heavenly chorus rains down on huge frames. Even the prison looks vast — like a cathedral, like the universe. The outdoors always have the sun, like a blast of benevolence from up there. Before Franz is about to be executed, we see him sitting outside, his head in a corner of the frame, and there's just the vast sky above. Like always, he seems in communion with heaven. The film takes its title from the hugely touching George Eliot quote seen at the end: "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." It's hidden lives of people like Franz Jägerstätter that still fill us with hope.