A Hidden Life
by George Wolf
“Sign this paper and you’ll go free.”
“I am free.”
One man’s moral courage provides the anchor for A Hidden Life, writer/director Terrence Malick’s affirmation that a life well-lived is a beneficial one, no matter how small the spotlight.
Malick brings his dreamlike focus to the story of Franz Jagerstatter, a conscientious objector who refused to fight with the Nazis in World War II.
Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Frani (Valerie Pachner) are living happily in an Austrian farming village with their three young daughters. The work is hard but the peasant villagers share a strong communal spirit, still untouched by the winds of war.
Malick showcases the mountain landscape with his customary visual brilliance, teaming with cinematographer Jorg Widmer to envelope us in an expansive and idyllic old world setting among the clouds. But those clouds soon turn literally and figuratively stormy, and as Hitler’s rhetoric is parroted by the villagers, Franz’s commitment to conscience turns him into a prisoner and his family into outcasts who “sin against the village.”
Franz finds little comfort from his church elders, who urge appeasement and seek a compromise. But even an assignment away from the front would require an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi cause – a line Franz refused to cross.
The hushed voiceovers, forced perspectives and dreamlike imaging that served Malick so well in his masterfully personal The Tree of Life here seem a bit ill-fitting when paired with someone else’s legacy. A frequent return to lingering shots such as clasped hands thrust into the air lose resonance with repetition, creating a subtle tedium that betrays the nearly three hour running time.
Not that Malick’s latest doesn’t deliver emotional power, it certainly does, most pointedly during Franz’s visit with a church artist. Suffice to say the exchange features some of Malick’s most brilliantly concise dialogue, using one man’s honest introspection to frame another’s moral quandary in a heartbreakingly beautiful new light.
Try hard, and you can imagine Malick working in a purely historical context, giving a deserving salute to a lesser known man for all seasons.
But on its face, the film presents a climate that is all too familiar, one where a rising tide of hate divides families, reduces religious tenets to twisted rationalizations, and where blind rage requires no subtitles. A Hidden Life is at its best when those stakes are clear, and Franz’s unwavering conviction is a sobering history lesson.