AFI Fest 2019: A Hidden Life, by Scott Nye
Terrence Malick, among many other notable things about his career, has to be one of the few artists who’s become more radical, introspective, and confrontational the more he’s embraced Christianity. While his films, starting at least with 1978’s Days of Heaven, were never far removed from a sense of spirituality and the Bible as text, he’s taken in recent years a quite strict Christian view of excess, hedonism, and what it means to sacrifice those things. His characters in Knight of Cups and Song to Song especially, and in To the Wonder to some degree, swarm around sin and self-glorification until they either ruin themselves or divorce themselves from it to find a sense of peace and fulfillment. They find, in their own way, an Eden.
With his new film, A Hidden Life, Malick has found a premise almost ready-made for Pure Flix distribution. August Diehl stars as Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer whose faith led him to refuse service under Hitler in World War II, regardless of the consequences this decision might have for him. The film starts, and spends a good deal of time in, a more literal concept of Eden like that which consumed his earlier films – carefree days at the farm in Days of Heaven, the beachside village in The Thin Red Line, or John Smith’s time with the tribe in The New World.
Here, it is the farm once again, Franz’s modest estate in the gorgeous Austrian mountains. Here, Franz lives with his family, wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner), his wife’s sister, and their three young daughters. They play and work in harmony, sometimes interchangeably, alongside the other farmers in their village, combining efforts where need be and creating a community of contented success. The chores begin simple, straightforward, almost soothing in their predictability – they chop the grass, hoe the rows, wrangle the livestock, and spread the seeds where their plants will grow.
War is looming. The conflict that seems so far removed from these mountains doesn’t seem the be settling as expected. We see snippets of propaganda, the pure devotion to Nazism and Hitler that set Austria and neighboring Germany ablaze, and slowly that rhetoric is infesting the community; their outdoor beer garden and places that should be peaceful. Not all believe in the war’s causes, though few voice strong objection. Franz, knowing service means swearing an oath to their evil leader, knows he cannot do it. The following months will test him.
The chores grow more complicated, more difficult to execute. Machines seem to stick, thread seems to tangle, everything that once was so simple complicates. The connection between farm duties and spiritual turmoil is not made direct, but Malick uses their actions to express their inner lives. Inner life is of the utmost importance to Malick, and he uses voiceover here as freely as ever to reveal it. But action is just as important. To him, how we express ourselves physically is who we are, so his working methods – natural light, a freely-moving camera – are not mere affectations, but essential to his understanding of the world. There are few traditional dialogue scenes in his work. When, finally, Franz is called to service and arrested for not swearing an oath, we are not made to sit through a long scene of “will you swear and oath?” and “no” and “WILL YOU NOT SWEAR AN OATH?” Instead, the officer notices Franz’s silence, Franz notices him noticing, and in a quick cut he is in cuffs. Malick is efficient with what doesn’t matter.
Once Franz reaches prison, Malick retains his connection to the farm, and especially to his wife, through their letters, much of the text taken from the actual words they wrote to one another. She tells them of the children, what they want her to say and how they really are; he tells her of the remarkable men he meets, similarly resistant, who have much more to lose than he. In the way he writes and the way Diehl speaks these thoughts, one intuits the simplicity of his decision, of seeing something one cannot do and simply not doing it.
Regardless of how Franz saw it, Malick sees it as anything but simple. Too many films accept the decision to reject the unacceptable. The real experience of rejection is infinitely more complex. Innumerable officials beg him to relinquish, noting that no one will care or benefit from his steadfast resistance, which will surely result in his death, and he could simply serve in a medical unit, saving lives rather than ending them. Anyway, even prison labor benefits the soldiers, and he’s not so innocent. But there’s the issue of the oath, and oath no one who knows the First Commandment could make, regardless of how unseriously his lawyer claims anyone takes it.
And, would he take it, he would see his family again. Society benefits from those who resist; the individual and his family often suffer. And though it took decades for the world to know his name, we are better for Franz Jäggerstätter’s example. His loss, however, and his family’s, is undeniable. Malick accepts either decision Franz could make as entirely valid.
Early in the film, we see Franz assist an artist who is painting portraits in their local church. The artists talks about his images, how the churchgoers see these people who died centuries ago, and often suffered along the way, and tell themselves, well surely I would have behaved as they do, I would have stood up against evil for what’s right. The irony that so few of the churchgoers in Franz’s community are actually acting on this is not lost, nor too is the irony that present-day viewers watching Franz’s story are undoubtedly telling themselves the same. The present political moment we are experiencing gives us something to directly reflect upon. And I can say for sure that they wouldn’t be making any films about me in eighty years.
How many films connect us so deeply to the present, in every sense? How many urge on our attention to the wind, to our thoughts, to our immediate actions, and to our grand decisions? As many as there are Terrence Malicks. In this past decade, far and away the most productive of his career, have taken a filmmaker who at times seemed rooted in the eternity and rooted him firmly in the present, first through a string of films – his first, it must be noted – set in the era in which they’re produced, and now through a film that echoes the past to the present in undeniable terms, making more immediate both his characters’ predicament and, as always, his life. To spend three hours in those farming hills, enmeshed in its requirements and those joys, connects us to ourselves, to the world around us, to our loves and our allegiances, and builds everything else around that.
“Terrence Malick builds cathedrals,” Matt Zoller Seitz memorably wrote upon first seeing Malick’s 2005 film The New World, sometimes my favorite film ever made. Yes, I am one of those Malickians, those who relish each new film and each subsequent viewing. His work came into my life at a formative age and stuck there. He feels like home. This is a film about the beauty of that, and what it means to lose it. In an early conversation between Franz and Franziska, she recalls a motorcycle he rode when they first met, and a brief shot transports us to that ride, that freedom, the beauty of having it all in front of oneself. We’ll see that shot once again, in much greater length, at which point it stops becoming a fleeting memory in a busy life, but the very reason for living – to go on, to soak in, to luxuriate in the wind and the sounds and the freedom. But by then, it is already over.