Acclaimed director Terrence Malick has been making films for five decades, and for most of his career, those films have been almost universally acclaimed as stunning, spiritually ecstatic works of cinema. However, the 2010s – a prolific period in which Malick made six feature films, more than doubling his previously sparse oeuvre – have proven to be a rocky decade for the director. After garnering critical raves, a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and a Palme d’Or win for his cosmos-spanning meditation of existence itself, Tree of Life (2011), Malick pivoted to what might be generously described as his experimental phase. Cranking out three divisive narrative features and one Tree of Life-indebted IMAX documentary over just five years, he has increasingly discarded storytelling coherence for a freewheeling yet indulgent style that is easy to parody and difficult to love unconditionally. One of Malick’s most conspicuous talents is his ability to tease the transcendent from the ordinary. However, even his most passionate apologists might concede that it’s challenging to discern the face of God when presented with 120 free-associative minutes of Christian Bale sleeping with and then discarding women in present-day Los Angeles (as in 2015’s Knight of Cups).
One can practically hear a sigh of relief from cinephiles, then, at the arrival of Malick’s latest feature, A Hidden Life. It’s his first film with a conventional narrative since his colonial epic The New World (2005) and is arguably the most straightforward story the director has tackled since the love triangle in Days of Heaven (1978). While he appears to have discarded the more bleary and undisciplined tendencies that have characterized his recent works, A Hidden Life is instantly recognizable as a Terrence Malick feature. It's a film that’s positively besotted with the luminous wonder of sunlight, grass, and storm clouds, but also the cruel tangibility of stone walls and steel chains. Like all the director’s works from the 2010s – particularly the aforementioned Knight of Cups – A Hidden Life always seem to be in motion. The camera is perpetually racing, darting, or drifting; every cut introduces a shot that’s already suffused with inertia. Lensed by German cinematographer Jörd Widmer, it’s the first of Malick’s narrative features this decade that was not shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki. However, Widmer seems to apprehend the director’s distinctive aesthetic sensibility intuitively. A Hidden Life’s wide-angle digital photography devours every detail, every moment, befitting a film about the preciousness of human life – both as a fleeting experience to savor and a unit of currency that one man willingly gives up for the sake of his soul.
That man is Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a humble farmer living in a remote Alpine valley in Austria, 1938. Franz is married to a devoted woman, Fani (The Ground Beneath My Feet’s Valeria Pachner), and together they have three young daughters. Life is hard but sweet for the couple; they dwell, as Franz describes it, “above the clouds,” seemingly far from the concerns of the outside world. However, these idyllic sentiments are delivered over an opening that features black-and-white news and propaganda footage of the Nazis’ rise to power. Later, this juxtaposition is recalled when Fani hears the rumble of unseen bombers, high above their little hamlet. The darkness of the world has a habit of finding its way into even the most remote sanctuaries. Of course, the Jägerstätters’ valley was never really the apolitical Eden that they might have imagined: As the racialist ideology of the Third Reich spreads into every corner of Germany’s freshly expanded dominion, it finds eager adherents among the couple’s friends and neighbors. Soon the local mayor (Karl Karkovics) is drunkenly ranting at the village’s solitary pub about “immigrants” and their insidious efforts to weaken the Fatherland. Franz initially attempts to maintain a courteous neutrality with respect to this groundswell of Nazism, but as he freely admits, marrying a decent, principled woman like Fani made him more cognizant of his Christian duty to oppose evil and stand up for righteousness.
When Franz is eventually drafted to serve in the German Army – as is every Austrian man of fighting age after the 1939 Annexation (Anschluss) – he goes obediently, if reluctantly. At the basic-training camp that the Nazis have established on the grounds of a nearby fortress, he befriends a similarly disinclined recruit, Waldland (Transit’s Franz Rogowski). However, the time Franz spends training with German officers only affirms his belief that the Reich is a malevolent regime that must be resisted. After he is released back to his family to await orders, a perilous ethical stance begins to solidify in his mind: If called up to fight, he will refuse to swear allegiance to Germany and Adolf Hitler, an objection that will almost certainly result in his imprisonment and eventual execution. The choice is as simple as life and death, but the path to the right choice is murky and daunting. Franz must confront countless factors in his ethical calculus, and yet the pragmatic fulcrum of his dilemma is plain: What would he actually achieve by sacrificing his life – and thus abandoning his spouse and children – for the sake of his moral integrity?
Franz Jägerstätter was, in fact, a real person, and Malick adapted the screenplay for A Hidden Life from Franz and Fani’s letters to one another, as documented in a collection edited by Austrian biographer Erna Putz. It’s easy to see why Franz’s humble yet remarkable story caught the attention of the American theologian and pacifist Thomas Merton, who brought wider attention to the man’s previously obscure martyrdom in his 1968 book, Faith and Violence. (Franz was eventually beatified by the Catholic Church in 2007.)
Even if one knows nothing of Jägerstätter’s life, however, it is apparent early on that A Hidden Life is necessarily going to end with the man’s execution for treason. Malick’s film therefore amounts to a nearly three-hour rumination on the act of martyrdom – both in the context of Franz’s specific situation and in a more general sense. In theory, this could have made for an exceedingly monotonous experience, and on paper, that’s admittedly what A Hidden Life seems to resemble. As Franz moves through the landscape of wartime Austria and Germany – first as a free man struggling with his conscience and then as a captive of the Nazi military-justice system – he and Fani exchange fervent professions of love and anguished theological queries with one another. (As one might expect with a Malick feature, the majority of the film’s dialogue is delivered in voiceover.) Franz sits in various cells awaiting his fate: suffering vicious abuse from the German guards, offering kindness to his fellow prisoners, and praying to God for guidance and spiritual strength. Meanwhile Fani struggles to maintain their farm and raise their daughters, all while enduring the poisonous contempt of the villagers. Only the local miller (Johannes Krisch) and, to a lesser degree, the wary parish priest (Tobia Moretti) seem to be sympathetic to her plight.
It’s not obviously the stuff of stirring cinematic art, but great filmmakers from Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) to Martin Scorsese (Silence) have fashioned deeply affecting works from stories where the action is primarily spiritual rather than physical. Undoubtedly, Malick is one of the few living American filmmakers who is similarly capable of translating the tribulations of the soul into the language of cinema. He renders the dual travails of Franz and Fani as a kind of twinned dialectic, in which the Jägerstätters are in dialogue with not only with another but also their respective surroundings. Unsurprisingly, Malick and cinematographer Widmer do a dazzling job of capturing the breathtaking loveliness of the alpine countryside – most of which was filmed in Northern Italy – imbuing it with an ethereal quality that asserts, without ever insisting on the point, that the transcendent can be found in the here and now. However, owing to the film’s prodigious use of wide-angle lenses, every space in A Hidden Life feels sweeping and almost hyper-real, from a bishop’s sumptuous office lined with gilded books to the smothering confines of a forbidding German prison, its spaces crisscrossed by bars and wire.
It would be easier to dismiss A Hidden Life as a pointlessly repetitive and protracted endeavor – the three-hour running time flies by, but the film’s epic bulk is still discernible – if Franz lacked an arc. Were he depicted as a beatific figure, ironclad in his convictions and resolved to his fate, there wouldn’t be much of a story. (Mel Gibson’s torture-fetishizing The Passion of the Christ took this tedious, uninspired track.) However, Franz’s agony is like that of the Portuguese Jesuits in Silence: He spends much of the film in a state of feverish spiritual torment, knowing with certainty what his conscience whispers to him, but dreadfully uncertain as to whether that command is right, just, or meaningful. It is an hour into A Hidden Life before Franz’s formal orders appear in the hands of a postal carrier – the film perversely turns the bright ding of the postman’s bicycle bell into an infernal chime of doom – and the decision to resist his summons is not portrayed as one made lightly or quickly.
Malick follows Franz’s evolution closely both before and after his basic training, observing the way that the aggressive encroachment of the Nazi ideology into his private utopia bridles the man. He spurns the soldiers who are collecting money for the war effort, eliciting incredulous scorn from those villagers who have absorbed the Reich’s fiery nationalism. (In the eyes of the mayor, Franz is refusing to help “veterans and their families".) When he first encounters a neighbor on the road who offers a “Heil Hitler,” Franz is first dazed and then furious, barking back the curse “Scheiße Hitler” almost instinctively. His pacifist stance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Sensing his doubts, the Reich’s official and unofficial agents push him to affirm his loyalty, and and a result Franz's resolve only hardens.
After Franz is imprisoned, Matthias Schoenaerts appears as a smoothly manipulative Nazi officer who peppers Franz with questions and assertions, as though throwing out every possible doubt to see what sticks: What good will your death do anyone? Think of your wife and children. It’s just a little oath; why not swear it and end your suffering? Do you imagine yourself more righteous than others? The German war effort will roll on regardless of your protest. Franz himself is no holy poet, and at times he struggles to articulate his reasoning, to explain why he is giving up the only life God has granted him for a damn principle. There are moments of clarity, however. “I don’t judge you,” he says almost apologetically to an exasperated military judge (the late Bruno Ganz, in one of his final roles). “But I have this feeling inside me. And I can’t do what I believe is wrong.” The more that the red-faced Germans scream at Franz, beat him, and take away from him, the more powerful his protest becomes. One thinks of Gandhi, conceding that that British Empire can destroy him physically but cannot compel his compliance. Or of John Proctor in The Crucible, howling that he cannot sign his name to a false confession, because in the end, that name is all he has.
Whether the viewer will ultimately find a 174-minute treatise on the ethical and theological question of martyrdom compelling may be a matter of personal taste, but there’s no denying Malick’s sincerity or the visual splendor of his methods. More so than the rambling and at times ephemeral Tree of Life, the director’s latest feature earns its aura of soulful awe by remaining rigorously grounded in the specifics of the Jägerstätters’ lives. The same rambunctious joy that Malick discovered in the suburban Texas of his memories can be discerned in Franz’s humble farmhouse, where he chases and dances with his giggling daughters. Here, however, that impressionistic portrait of domestic bliss is not interspersed with visions of galaxies or dinosaurs or heavenly beaches. The only Heaven that Franz sees in his mind’s eye is the little farm he has willingly abandoned in the name of righteousness: The endless green grass, the silvery mist on the snowy peaks, the brown earth beneath his wife’s fingernails.
The Nazis look at such bucolic beauty and see only resources, the nourishing grain and warm bodies they need for their conquering armies. (When Franz visits the local bishop, portrayed by the late Michael Nyqvist, the church official sadly observes, “Do you hear those bells? They’re melting them. For bullets.”) Malick conveys this roiling tension between the world’s sublime and monstrous aspects as no other director can, and A Hidden Life represents his most sorrowful and earthbound expression of this duality to date. One recalls the words of Sgt. Witt in the director’s masterpiece, The Thin Red Line: “I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.” A Hidden Life suggests that this world is less distant and numinous that we might imagine, that it might be glimpsed in something as simple as a man standing up and saying, “No.”