“A Hidden Life” Is Nearly Perfect

“A Hidden Life” Is Nearly Perfect December 15, 2019

Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life, contains the most memorable line of dialogue I’ve heard all year.  As his Austrian protagonist Franz Jägerstätter observes a painter retouching the artwork of an ornate church interior, the artist comments:  “I help people look up from those pews and dream…We create admirers.  We don’t create followers…Christ’s life is a demand.  You don’t want to be reminded of it.”

“We create admirers.  We don’t create followers.”  While I am decidedly not a follower of any religion, these words still hit home.  As an avid reader of non-fiction and devourer of documentaries, I believe that the best way to avoid repeating history is to learn it deeply.  I also believe we have much to learn from past heroes, whether Harriet Tubman, the Jewish warriors of the Warsaw ghetto, or musicians who resisted Soviet totalitarianism.

A Hidden Life prompted me to ask whether I’m passively admiring or actively emulating such heroes.  Since Jägerstätter has been beatified by the Catholic Church for the martyrdom following from his refusal to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler, I hope Malick’s film will prompt Christians to ask a similar question of themselves.

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl, as Fani and Franz Jägerstätter, in “A Hidden Life”

For this is manifestly a film for our time, as countries in the Americas and Europe tilt ominously towards fascist nationalism, and the citizen sheep bleat their approval.  In one of A Hidden Life’s many voiceovers, Franz asks his wife Fani, “What has happened to our country, to the land we love?”  After their mayor stupidly bashes immigrants, a friend gasps incredulously to Franz, “Don’t they recognize evil when they see it?”  Franz himself pleads for spiritual guidance from his bishop: “What does one do if our leaders are evil?”

But fear not, A Hidden Life is not a three hour sermon; rather, this is artistic near-perfection.  And I say this as someone who normally considers watching a Malick film – whether The New World, The Thin Red Line, or Days of Heaven – the equivalent of eating your cinematic vegetables.  (Frankly, I found 2011’s Tree of Life so tedious that I turned it off partway through and skipped his next four films.)

I think it helps immensely that A Hidden Life has a stronger through-narrative than these other films, so a powerful story is served by his trademark voiceovers and breathtaking natural imagery.  And what imagery!  Shot in the Jägerstätters’ home village of St. Radegund, as well as the surrounding Tyrolean Alps of Austria and Italy, their family’s pre-war existence seems idyllic, if not Edenic, before Nazi warplanes fly overhead.

As played by German actors August Diehl and Valerie Pachner, Franz and Fani exude diligence, passion, and affection.  As farmers lacking mechanical equipment, they scythe the village’s communal wheat field by hand, and force a plough forward as their cow haphazardly pulls it.  They joyously roughhouse and play pranks with their three daughters.  They reminisce over how Fani first fell hard for him when Fritz zoomed into her village on his motorcycle.

Opening in 1939, all of this unfolds harmoniously to a soundtrack of wind, cattle lowing, a donkey sneezing, and the bicycle bell of the region’s mailman.  The frequent use of a fisheye lens and an upward camera angle convey intimacy with the characters.  The color scheme of green hay, darkly fertile soil, gray mountain crags, and light brown farmhouse walls is gorgeously rendered in widescreen.  Malick’s cinematographer Jörg Widmer effectively contrasts this with black-and-white footage of Hitler and his worshipful masses.  The tighter aspect ratio of the mass rallies symbolizes their terrifyingly narrow worldview and barbaric intolerance on the rise.

The seasons pass, nature indifferent to history.  But as Franz refuses to publicly support the Nazi regime, he and Fani are chastised, shoved, and shunned by their fellow villagers.  This comes to a head when Franz is finally drafted by the German army in 1943 and is the lone soldier in his squad who doesn’t raise his right hand in fealty to Hitler.

From here, A Hidden Life crafts obvious parallels between Franz’s and Jesus’ suffering.  Family accusing him of pride, priests cravenly counseling silence or submission, and his sympathetic lawyer urging him to sign a renunciation (“say the oath and think what you like”) create analogues to Christ’s wilderness temptation.  A military judge who talks with him privately is reminiscent of Pontius Pilate.

Franz’s prison beatings bring to mind Jesus’ torment before his execution.  It must be said, however, that this is no crucifixion porn in the vein of Mel Gibson’s abhorrent The Passion of the Christ.  Malick’s jagged editing implies, rather than graphically exhibits, Franz’s physical suffering.

The musical score, perhaps the year’s best, lends dignity to these events.  Aptly chosen accompaniment ranges from more obvious choices like Górecki’s Third Symphony and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, to pieces unfamiliar to me by Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke.  Running through this is what I would argue is hyperprolific composer James Newton Howard’s career-best film score.  The joyous purity of his music, overlaid by violinist James Ehnes’ crystalline playing, darkens in tandem with the tone of village life.

Both August Diehl and Valerie Pachner are excellent as the two leads in A Hidden Life.  (I only knew Diehl from his memorable role as a crafty Nazi officer in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, while Pachner was completely unfamiliar to me.)  Diehl projects a humble goodness, his early exuberance morphing into wide-eyed exhaustion.  Even as a chained prisoner, he holds onto his core decency, helping a woman lift her suitcase onto the overhead rack of a train.  In some ways, Pachner has the more challenging role, yet with fewer words, she still conveys her steadfastness and affection, wearied but unbroken by her village’s ostracism.

With his film, Malick made the innovative, counterintuitive decision to have his German cast speak the necessary dialogue in English, while the words spoken in German go untranslated.  At first I puzzled over this, but with this choice, Malick sharpens our attention to the essential.

Hopefully, my more-than-usual quotations have made clear the intelligence of this script.  If there is a fault here, it’s in one or two points where the voiceovers veer close to fortune cookie aphorisms, as when a fellow prisoner tells Franz that “even if it rains, the sun still shines.”  Yet these are rare exceptions, not enough for me to deduct even a half-star from my review (making it only the third film of 2019 to earn five stars from me).        

Malick based his film’s title on a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which reads in part, “[T]he growing good of the world is…half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”  I’m grateful to Malick for introducing a wider audience to the Jägerstätters.  May their lives do more than spawn admirers.

 

(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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