Midway through the first hour of Terrence Malick’s astonishing new historical film, A Hidden Life, there comes a moment where our protagonist, the sunken-eyed and sorrow-filled Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), observes an artist as he restores a cathedral’s murals of martyrs and scenes from the life of Christ. A faithful and deeply moral Catholic, Jägerstätter is struggling with a crisis of conscience: He fears he will be drafted into the Wehrmacht, but, unlike the majority of his countrymen, he hates the Nazis and can see their values for what they really are. If he objects, he will, in all certainty, be put to death and leave his wife, Fanni (Valerie Pachner) to raise their three children alone. If he decides to serve, he will betray every value that he holds, and his life will be in the service of an evil that he cannot abide. He will make the right choice when the time comes, but for now, he’s just sitting, watching the artist’s brush move across the walls, and the aged man begins to speak with him.
He ponders his role in helping to create these images, meant to inspire the faithful, at large, to do good and to sacrifice for it, but, deep down, he knows that the throngs wouldn’t have saved these men or gone against the grain to do what was just. He remarks that he always has to paint a happy Christ, with a halo around his head, and wishes that he could, for once, depict “a true Christ” in his work, bearing the suffering and torment that was heaped upon him. This acts as a mission statement for the film, and A Hidden Life (formerly titled Radegund, after St. Radegund, the mountainous village which Jägerstätter lived in) is an impassioned ode to the seeming impossibility of doing good when the world seems to be dissolving into a cesspool of hate and despair. It earns every overwhelming moment of its (admittedly bladder-bursting) 173 minute runtime, and should be high on any and all must-see lists for the rest of this calendar year.
The film hues close to the particulars of Jägerstätter’s life, and, as such, it gives Malick’s film a shape that a number of his other recent works doesn’t have. The whispered voice-overs, which frustrate some, have a functional narrative purpose here: The film is essentially told in an epistolary fashion, as the narrated letters between Franz and Fanni make up much of the spoken dialogue that English-language viewers can understand (there is diagetic dialogue in English in a number of scenes, but subtitle-free German often rules the day). They are fascinating in what they don’t reveal to one another: Jägerstätter’s prison beatings and his moments of levity, Fanni’s condemnation from the villagers who once gladly greeted them as they helped with the harvest; reaching, grasping for whatever memories of the good times that they can retain. And as Franz’s faith becomes stronger as he weathers his tribulations and temptations (each coming from a different Mephistopheles as he gets closer to his death), the formerly-pious Fanni begins to slowly doubt that the Lord will provide for her.
It is an enormously complicated film, and part of the reason it doesn’t feel its long length is because it takes the time to develop these stakes, to emphasize what Jägerstätter will lose when he heads to the guillotine. As such, Malick’s able to derive difficult emotions from small things, like fear at the sound of a postman’s bicycle bell.
As with every Malick film in the modern era, it is impossibly beautiful, and cinematographer Jörg Widmer, who worked with Emmanuel Lubezki on The Tree of Life, manages to do a very passable variation on the master’s style. His mobile, floating camera adds a dimension of immersion to conversations, as if we’re right there with Jägerstätter in the midst of his trials or in the pastoral idyll of his home life (and it is beautiful: not since The Biggest Little Farm has farm life looked so genuinely magical). And Malick’s attention to detail in the editing room manages to cultivate and extract moments of true meaning — take, for example, the scene in which the head of the Nazi tribunal (played by Bruno Ganz in his final film performance) that sends Jägerstätter to his death has a Pilate-like moment of reflection about his actions, as he sits in the chair where the condemned once did earlier, and places his hands upon his lap as if they were cuffed.
They are small glimpses of the ephemeral, complicating and adding to the depth of the emotional surroundings, and perhaps it’s the streamlined nature of this particular narrative that makes them so potent in their context. Malick’s “modern life is rubbish” trilogy (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song) rubbed a number of viewers the wrong way, but this takes an essential aspect of their style and repurposes it to an end that compliments them and Tree of Life beautifully. To those who wondered if the master had another film like that one in him, I’m proud to say that he did (and that you’re wrong about that trilogy being bad).
Some have said that this is Malick’s most political film, and that’s true enough: It is fundamentally depressed about the state of the world during troubled times like these, about the nature of demagoguery and populist fascism and what they do the brain. It is also angry at what this sickness has done to the yeomen in the village: Nazism infects St. Radegund like a slowly-developing virus, as the men and women who once walked by Jägerstätter in the morning begin, over time, greeting him with a “Heil Hitler” instead of a hello or bullying him into donating to a veterans fund and stalking him when he doesn’t. But Malick could have made this film in 2004 and its message would still be as potent as it would be today: Doing the right thing will require incredible, impossible courage, and you will be tempted at every single turn by the men and women who fail to see a point in your sacrifices, who refuse to see a conscience as anything other than a nuisance meant to be denied. And, unlike Jägerstätter, who was beatified by the Church in 2007 (though he never expected such a thing), there is very little certainty that you will be remembered in any meaningful way for your actions. But the rewards for this bravery — not in any theological sense, as well — include the preservation of your very soul, of your legacy, of your defiance. A Hidden Life reminds us of this fact, and shows us the horror and the beauty of it all.