A Hidden Life (2019)
A meditation on morality and faith; a film of unparalleled sublimity; an experience beyond the sensory
31 January 2020
Always an explicitly Christian filmmaker, writer/director Terrence Malick has never been didactic, dogmatic, or puritanical. No matter how lofty his vision, his films remain always rooted in the human soul, in the tradition of Heidegger's existential phenomenology, which focuses on the ontology of the earthly Dasein ("being-there") rather than the epistemology of the Lebenswelt ("lifeworld") - even the most overtly metaphysical scenes in Malick remain focused on the physical. And A Hidden Life, which may be his most ostensibly Christian work yet, is quintessentially Malickian, featuring many of his most identifiable stylistic traits (whispered voice-overs, sweeping cameras spinning around non-stationary characters, the beauty of nature contrasted with the ugliness of humanity). Malick's films are about the search for transcendence in a compromised and often evil world, and, telling the true story of the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, A Hidden Life is no different. And how good is it? Very, very, very good. Not quite The Thin Red Line (1998)/The Tree of Life (2011) good, but certainly Badlands (1973)/Days of Heaven (1978)/The New World (2005) good. This is cinema at its most sublimely pious, a supremely talented master-auteur operating at the height of his not inconsiderable powers. You don't watch A Hidden Life. You let it enter your soul.

Austria, 1938. In the bucolic village of Sankt Radegund, peasant farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) lives a simple but blissful life with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their family. A devout Christian, he's unenthusiastic about the looming war, despite its widespread popularity in the village. Called up to basic training, he's away for several months, but when France surrenders in June 1940, it's thought that the war will soon end, and he's sent home without having been deployed. However, as time goes by, and as the war shows no signs of ending, his opposition grows ever more ingrained, to the point where his family are being harassed. Eventually, he's conscripted, but refuses to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, and so is arrested and imprisoned.

Needless to say, Malick fashions this material into a thematically rich mosaic. To a certain extent, all his films deal, to one degree or another, with the notion of the corruption of Eden, and Hidden Life is as literal as Thin Red Line and New World in this respect. Sankt Radegund is an earthly paradise, hidden in the embrace of the nearby mountains, fed by the River En (the film was originally called simply Radegund, before adopting the George Eliot quote as its title). However, as the war takes hold, the village comes under attack, not by bombs, but by ideological complicity. The harmony and idealism have been corrupted, not by Franz's refusal to comply, by everyone else's insistence on compliance. The village at the end of the film is an infinitely different place from that at the start, a tainted place. Eden has fallen.

Franz doesn't resist the Nazis because he wants to spearhead a movement or because of political high-mindedness. His reasons are simpler - he believes that God teaches us to resist evil, and as a great evil, he must therefore resist Nazism. There's nothing egotistical and precious little that's political in this stance. It's not even a question of personal morality. In an important exchange with Judge Lueben (the late, great Bruno Ganz), Franz is asked, "Do you have a right to do this?", to which he responds, "Do I have a right not to?" His resistance is ingrained in his very soul. Indeed, watching him head willingly toward his tragic fate, turning the other cheek to the prison guards who humiliate and torture him, he becomes something of a Christ figure, with his time in prison not unlike the Passion. An important conversation concerning this is when he is speaking to Ohlendorf (Johan Leysen), a cynical artisan who is restoring the local church's artwork. Ohlendorf laments that he must work not on images of Christ's suffering as it was, but on the sanitised version desired by the clergy, and he lacks the courage to do otherwise; "I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. Some day I might have the courage to venture. Not yet. Some day. I'll paint the true Christ." It's a subtle summation of Franz's situation, of course, but so too of the film, which shows Franz's suffering as it was even as it celebrates the power of faith to transcend such suffering.

In this sense, much like Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) in Thin Red Line, Franz is a Heideggerian sein-zum-tode ("being-towards-death"). This describes not the hastening towards the end of Dasein in a biological sense but is rather about the process of growing in the Lebenswelt to a point where one gains an authentic perspective, as one comes to completely accept the temporality of this existence, and hence no longer fear death. The application to both Witt and Franz is obvious - both men accept that this world is transitory and that life is simply part of the soul's eternal journey, so neither man fears death, and by not fearing it, they triumph over it.

Aesthetically, as one expects from Malick, A Hidden Life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful, particularly in its depiction of nature. Shooting digitally, Malick and his first-time cinematographer Jörg Widmer shot most of the exteriors (and some of the interiors) in a wide-lens anamorphic format that distorts everything outside the dead-centre of the frame. The effect is subtle (we're not talking fisheye lens distortion), but important - pushing the mountains further around the village, bringing the sky closer, elongating the already vast fields. This is a land beyond time, a modern Utopia that kisses the very sky.

The film opens with the sounds of birds chirping and a river flowing, followed by a voice-over in which Fani invokes the natural grandeur of Sankt Radegund ("I thought that we could build our nest high-up. In the trees. Fly away like birds to the mountains"). All of this before we see a single image. The film then begins (and closes) on breath-taking shots of the mountains around the village. However, a lot of the VO is epistolary, with large portions taken from the letters Franz and Fani write to one another when he was in prison. For Malick, this is a very conventional style to employ, especially insofar as his VOs have been getting more and more abstract as his films have gone on.

As for problems, as a Malick fanatic, I found very few. You know what you're getting with a Malick film, so complaining about the length (it's just shy of three hours) or the pace is kind of pointless. You know if you like how Malick paces his films, and if you found, for example, New World boring beyond belief, so too will you find Hidden Life. One thing I will say, though, there are a few scenes in the last act that are a little repetitive, giving us information we already have or hitting emotional beats we've already hit. It could also be argued that the film abstracts or flat-out ignores the real horrors of World War II, but that's by design. It isn't about those horrors, and Thin Red Line proves Malick has no problem showing man's inhumanity to man. The same is true for politics; much like 1917 (2019), Hidden Life is not about politics, so to accuse it of failing to address politics is to imply it's obliged to address politics. Which it most certainly is not.

In the end, A Hidden Life left me profoundly moved, on a level that very, very few films have (Thin Red Line and Tree of Life amongst them). Less a film than a spiritual odyssey, if you're a Malick fan, you should be enraptured. I don't know if I'd necessarily call it a masterpiece, but it's certainly close and is easily the best film of 2019 that I've seen thus far (the fact that it missed out on a single Academy Award nomination is a commentary unto itself).
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