A Spiritual Reckoning in Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life
It’s been argued that all war movies are, to some degree, pro-war; that any depiction of battle, no matter how horrific or devastating, inevitably glamourizes its subject by lionizing its participants for their courage and sacrifice. For writer-director Terrence Malick, the solution is simple: to truly make an anti-war movie, you don’t need to show the war at all. In A Hidden Life, Malick makes a stirring case against conflict without showing a single frame of battle. Based on a true story, A Hidden Life follows Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector during World War II who refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler or fight in his army, and the political and social consequences that he and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) endure as a result of that choice. Over the course of the film, Franz and Fani discover that there are some lines that cannot be crossed, and that some moral stances are worth taking, no matter the cost. The film begins in typically idyllic Malick fashion, with a window into the lives of the Jagerstatter family’s daily lives. Franz and Fani are farmers in the small, tight-knit agrarian village of St. Radegund, Austria in 1939. They live a simple, but joyful life working their farm alongside Franz’s mother and Fani’s sister. Their everyday bliss is punctuated by the births of their three daughters, and they spend their lives in close contact with their community, surrounded by serene mountains and lively animals, all captured by the graceful handheld camerawork of Jorg Widmer, who has served as a camera operator on many of Malick’s previous films. To those turned off by Malick’s more esoteric outings, have no fear; A Hidden Life follows a much more straightforward narrative than some of the director’s more meandering output (though it still features heavy amounts of romantic voiceover philosophizing over vistas of nature, especially during the opening act). But their peaceful existence cannot last, and when the men of the village are called to swear loyalty to Hitler and fight for the German army in World War II, Franz refuses, even knowing that by doing so he risks his life and his family. Franz is brutally imprisoned for months, and Fani is treated like an outcast by the townspeople. To say more would be to give away the entire plot, but suffice it to say that A Hidden Life follows both Franz and Fani through the intimate human moments of their struggle. As an anti-war film, A Hidden Life presents an interesting contrast to some of the director’s previous work, particularly the war epic The Thin Red Line and colonial drama The New World, both of which contain more traditional depictions of war’s horrors contrasted against Malick’s characteristically beautiful imagery. Although I think you could fairly characterize The Thin Red Line as anti-war as well, A Hidden Life hits that theme more strongly by centering its entire story about a man who refused to go to war--a figure rarely seen on screen. Although it is Franz’s decision that drives the film forward, Malick does a nice job balancing the two spouses’ perspectives and showing the punishments that they each face. Diehl and Pachner give dynamic, fully lived-in performances; their characters feel like real people, with palpable loves, hopes, and fears. They lead an all-star European cast doing solid work across the board, including Jurgen Prochnow, Mattias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and, in their final film performances, Michael Nyqvist and Bruno Ganz. It’s also one of Malick’s more overtly spiritual works. Life in the Jagerstatter’s small town is centered around the local church, and when Franz is wrestling with his decision to resist conscription, he debates a priest about the morality of war, and concludes that as a man of faith, he cannot bring himself to work in service of an evil man. Meanwhile, Fani leans on her faith to help her endure the burden of losing her husband to imprisonment and receiving the scorn of her neighbors. It’s a commonly heard refrain, particularly in times like this one: “if you were alive during [tumultuous historical period], what would you have done?” With A Hidden Life, Malick has provided us with exemplary figures to emulate: those who stuck to their moral principles when it was not only unpopular, but dangerous to do so.