A Hidden Life
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019, 174 minutes
In his essay “Lies That Tell the Truth,” the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys discusses Raimund Pretzel, a German who quit his native land in 1938 because he grasped at least some of what was happening around him. Pretzel, writing under the pen name of Sebastian Haffner, left behind a memoir, which Leys draws on to give this account:
The author was a well-educated young man. . . . He had no privileged information; simply, like any other intellectual, he read the newspapers, followed the news, discussed current affairs with friends and colleagues. . . . Experiencing nothing more than what all his compatriots were experiencing, he faced the inescapable truth. . . . he went into voluntary exile, first to France and then to England—to save his soul. His short (unfinished), clear-sighted and sober memoir raises one terrifying question: all that Haffner knew at the time, many millions of people around him knew equally well. Why was there only one Haffner?
Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life, also set under the Nazi reign, raises similar questions.
Malick is a divisive presence in today’s cinema—his early films Badlands and Days of Heaven are now rated highly, but his more recent choices have thrown him into disrepute. For one thing, he’s taken up God as a central theme. For another, he’s often criticized for making impressionistic films sparse on dialogue and plot. He can lean on certain visual tropes—the British Film Institute notes, for example, that his “images of nature, once unique and reflective, risk appearing flouncy and overused”—that are easily parodied. Yet, for some, later films like The Tree of Life and To the Wonder are profound meditations on questions of God, human relationships, and a crisis of “fecundity” in the modern West.
Malick’s newest effort takes its title from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. At the end of A Hidden Life, a quote from Eliot’s novel appears on screen: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Malick, then, intends his latest to be a portrait of one such person who “lived faithfully a hidden life.” That person is Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a real historical figure—an Austrian farmer who was killed for refusing to serve in the Nazi forces.
A Hidden Life tells a simple story. Jägerstätter and his wife, Franziska, have a happy marriage and work, uncomplainingly, as farmers in the village of St. Radegund, among the beautiful mountains and valleys of upper Austria. They have three daughters they raise lovingly. They are committed to their Catholicism; their house is full of religious art and Crucifixes, and Franz is a sacristan at their local parish church (in real life, he was affiliated with the Franciscan Order). Then the war comes. Franz believes the war to be unjust and he begins to agonize over how to respond if he is called up to serve. His dissent from Hitler and the Nazi regime becomes increasingly clear to his fellow villagers, most of whom begin to treat him and his family harshly. He continues on with his life for a time but is eventually called up. Faced with the choice to pledge an oath to Hitler or risk a likely execution by the authorities, he refuses to swear the oath and is, in the end, killed for it.
A Hidden Life is recognizably Malick. It is a deeply interior-minded 174 minutes. Characters spend a significant amount of time praying to God silently, with their internal thoughts conveyed as voiceovers. It veers, at times, on solipsistic; the film is very much shot from the perspective of the dominant character in any scene. We see the world at a distance through his or her eyes, with his or her interior preoccupations often taking precedence over the external world. Occasional moments of communion, especially between Franz and his wife, break this meditative spell, but it remains the film’s dominant mode. However, although the depiction of nature and domestic life alike is reminiscent of previous works, some of Malick’s tropes are reined in, and the film has more exterior dialogue and plot than, say, To the Wonder.
In his loyalty to his conscience, Franz occasionally finds support from others. However, the film is in large part a series of arguments between Franz and Franziska, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other. Early on, Franz brings his concerns about being called up to his village priest. The priest is somewhat skeptical of Franz’s attitude and promises to consult the bishop. The bishop says Franz has a duty to the Fatherland (later on, Franz is to say that his countrymen have forgotten their true Fatherland) and quotes a Biblical verse on obedience. The mayor of Franz’s town argues with him, a Nazi sent to persuade him when he is first imprisoned argues with him, the judge who sentences him to death argues with him, his priest argues with him, and his lawyer begs him to sign the oath. Franziska receives this treatment too, with her sister pushing her throughout the film to oppose Franz’s decision. She, however, declines to do so.
Those who argue with Franz are portrayed in varying lights, but in some cases, at least, there is a genuine if misguided desire on their part to protect Franz from himself and prevent his execution. They are also often depicted as in some way unhappy with the regime or their own involvement with it. The Bishop appears weary of it all, while the judge who sentences him to death clearly does not want to do so. There is even a brief shot of a Nazi official, whom Franz’s wife visits to request some bureaucratic favor, appearing to struggle in private pain, presumably with his complicity in the regime. Franz, for his part, is compassionate and understanding to those who try to dissuade him. He remarks to Franziska, for example, that the Bishop might have thought he was a spy and thus could not council him in favor of disobedience lest he be reported himself.
Every kind of argument is used throughout the film to convince Franz to fall in line. He is accused of pride and asked whether he is qualified to judge right and wrong. He is told to think of how his death will hurt his family. He is told, by his village priest, that God does not care what he says but only what he believes in his heart—so he can say the oath but not mean it. His lawyer tells him that nobody takes the oath seriously. He is told that, as a prisoner who has to do things like load sand into sandbags, he is already complicit in the regime and so might as well take the oath.
The most common argument used against him is that his sacrifice serves no purpose. Nobody will know about it, in the first place, and it will benefit no one. It cannot change the course of the war or the nature of the world, so he might as well give it up. This, of course, ties into Malick’s title and his use of the Middlemarch quote. Franz is told that his sacrifice would be totally hidden and, therefore, worthless. In this light, Malick’s movie is a narrative defense of the idea that hidden sacrifices and hidden virtues are not only “worth it” but indeed a crucial motive force in history. At one point in the film, Franz is taunted by a fellow prisoner, who tells him that Christ was a failure who came for nothing, that He did not succeed in changing the world. What is needed now instead, the prisoner remarks, is a “successful saint.” As Christ, so his disciple Franz.
Malick’s movie, however, becomes a little incoherent on this point. The Eliot-inspired title, to be sure, does cohere with the film’s choice to emphasize Franz’s politeness. While being led to Berlin as a prisoner, he is shown helping a woman with her bag. At another point he is shown to fix an umbrella that had fallen down. Both Franz and his wife share food with others, including, in Franz’s case, a fellow prisoner. This is Eliot’s small, hidden kindness—a very good thing, of course, but the dissonance comes from the fact that Franz’s death was not really “unhistoric.”
He was martyred by a regime which is, in our collective imagination, the very embodiment of absolute evil. This fact necessarily makes his story feel “bigger” and more historic than the life of someone who quietly lived out a normal human lifespan doing small local acts of good. Moreover, though he is not a household name, the Catholic Church considers Jägerstätter to be a Blessed (the rank just beneath saint). Against this background, the Middlemarch quote appears an odd—and sentimental—choice from which to draw the title. This seems the wrong story to tell if your point is to meditate on Eliot’s sentiment.
A better title for the film might have drawn on the title of a 1964 biography written about Jägerstätter: In Solitary Witness (martyr means witness in Greek). The movie, it’s true, doesn’t portray Jägerstätter as thoroughly solitary. He has the occasional sympathizer, and Franziska respects his decision and even encourages him to “do what is right.” Nevertheless, Franz and his wife are alone enough in their world, facing widespread hostility in their village without any real support from Catholic authorities. A Hidden Life is then a portrait of a couple who heroically live out their conscience despite the failure of institutions in their world to help them do right. In his essay quoted above, Leys remarks that the truth is often obvious but “all of us, most of the time [find] it more expedient to wash [our] hands of the truth.” Franz and his wife could not wash their hands of the truth, even if the institutions around them could. That they give witness is cause for celebration; that they should be solitary in doing so is tragic.
Yet perhaps that title, and that interpretation, might not fit with Malick’s moral vision. The interiorized nature of the film could be read as highlighting the tragedy of the Jägerstätters’ solitude, but given that Malick uses this style in other films, it seems less a comment on Franz and his wife in particular, and more of a piece with Malick’s general cinematic worldview. The Tree of Life and To the Wonder have similar voiceovers, inner monologues, and dialogues with God, and the latter features characters who struggle to achieve meaningful communion with others: Javier Bardem as a priest suffering a crisis of faith and Ben Affleck as a selfish romantic partner unable to enter into fruitful relationships. In the end, both characters find communion in caring for the poor—but nevertheless, the overall sense conveyed by Malick’s films is that life is solitary by default. If that is so, the absence of communion-in-witness that the Jägerstätters experience (except in their own marriage) might just be a fixed feature of life. In light of Malick’s style, the tragedy that the Jägerstätters should be solitary is, then, less challenged than woven deeply into the fabric of human life in general.
However, if Malick’s relation to the Jägerstätters’s solitude is complicated, this meditation on witness—martyrdom—does yield one especially notable insight. At one point in the film, Jägerstätter says that after you “give up the idea of surviving at all costs, a new light floods in.” He remarks that you become more merciful and that you understand better the weaknesses of others. Giving up the idea of surviving at all costs is clearly not easy for Jägerstätter: The film shows him in anguish as the words are given in voiceover. Nonetheless, he does give it up and he is shown giving food in this same scene to another prisoner. This merciful act, we are led to believe, is the fruit of his renunciation of the idolatry of survival.
The notion that you become more merciful once you are prepared to admit things higher than survival is a witness of the Christian ideal to Jägerstätter’s coreligionists in the West today, who are thinking through their political place in a changing contemporary world. Is the Christian posture toward the world one that prioritizes survival at all costs? And does adopting that posture expand or constrict our capacity for mercy? Not all Christians are asked by God to be martyrs, to be sure, but the ideal that A Hidden Life holds up is not to be lost sight of—and it was not out of reach for an Austrian farmer who was, in every respect except holiness, ordinary.