A Hidden Life: Making a Difference, by Tyler Smith
In the small town of Ozark, Missouri there is a church. It’s just one of many. Across the street from this church is a cemetery. In that small cemetery is a grave marked “Kevin David Smith”. Along with his name, you’ll find the words “He Made A Difference” etched onto the tombstone, inspired by his oft-repeated yearning. This man was my father and, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure those words are true. At least, not in the sense he wished them to be. He likely defined “making a difference” as leaving behind some kind of legacy that future generations will remember. But, like the vast majority of people in this world, he is largely unknown, save for the handful of people that actually knew him. If his goal was to have broken out of a life of obscurity in order to change the world for the better, many would consider him a failure and his life a tragedy. It is this consideration that Terrence Malick attempts to explore in his beautiful film A Hidden Life, which explores the idea of doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching and there is no tangible hope of legacy. It is a film that hopes to redefine the concept of “making a difference” as something both more intimate and yet more cosmic.
Based on a true story, the film follows humble farmer Franz Jӓggerstӓtter (August Diehl), who lives an idyllic life in pre-WWII Austria with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner). As Nazi aggression intensifies, Franz is called up for military duty, requiring that he swear an oath to Adolph Hitler. A devout Christian, Franz feels that it would be wrong to swear that oath, so he refuses. This results in the targeting of his family by the local community, and his eventual imprisonment. And, as he is reminded time and again by his captors, his protest is not and will not be public. It is not inspiring anybody. It is all for nothing.
The story really isn’t that complicated, and many would wonder what it is about these events that requires an almost 3-hour film. And while it is true that the story is materially very simple, it is tremendously complex, both emotionally and thematically. It invites the viewer to ask how he or she would respond in such circumstances. Franz is not only removed from his family, but is on a path that will lead to his eventual execution. All for a protest that nobody will see.
Ah, but therein lay the real beauty of A Hidden Life. So many of Franz’s oppressors’ comments appeal to a much more tangible definition of “making a difference”, ignoring concepts like personal conscience and spiritual conviction. But Franz isn’t interested in the opinion of the world around him. His decision ultimately boils down to what he can live with and what he can’t. To swear an oath to Hitler is to go against his own moral and spiritual instincts, which is something he obviously can’t live with.
Many would scoff at such an idea, especially since it means leaving his wife alone to raise their children and tend the farm. Surely, the lives of those he loves would be better off if he simply ignored his conscience and complied with the demands of the state. But such is the nature of sacrifice. And, besides, the man that Franziska fell in love with in the first place is a man of integrity and conviction. To return to her having compromised that is to become a different person; one whose embrace of the status quo would seem to trump all other considerations, including moral ones.
And so, with the constant threat of historical obscurity being lobbed over and over again, Terrence Malick goes about the noble task of giving Franz his due. His story may be small, but Malick does his best to ensure that it doesn’t stay that way. Using the eloquent letters between Franz and his wife as a basis, Malick tells a story that is emotionally epic, employing a wide angle lens and long shots that capture the scope of these obscure lives and the extraordinary and horrific events that changed them forever. He gives the characters and their dire circumstances room to breathe, treating the Jӓggerstӓtters with the same reverence one would give such higher profile historical rebels as Martin Luther King and Thomas More.
A Hidden Life is not only a beautiful movie, but an important one, due to its unspoken promise. It is the assurance that the right thing done in darkness is no less legitimate than that done in the light. The promise that even the lowliest of us – the people who will not be remembered after we’re gone – can make a difference. By allowing Franz Jӓggerstӓtter his moment – by giving him the mythic treatment that was so thoroughly denied him by his captors and contemporaries – Malick hopes to inspire the audience to stand by their principles, whatever they may be; to be a lone voice amongst the mob. Though that voice might be drowned out in the moment, Malick assures us that it will not go unnoticed, by our loved ones, by ourselves, and, yes, ultimately by God. So that when we are gone – even those of us buried in a random cemetery in an anonymous town – we can rest easy knowing that we were true to ourselves, even in the most difficult of times. A life like that may not “make a difference”, but it makes us different.