Terence Malick has always been unabashedly spiritual, but A Hidden Life may be his most outright Christian film yet. It focuses in on the quiet and personal, yet brave and terrible sacrifice of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter, who was executed by the Nazis and later beatified by the Catholic Church. Franz makes for a powerful historical figure, one who, finally, has returned Malick to a more considered and structured script, after too many loose looks at America in the last decade. Reaching for the divine and unknowable over three slow, contemplative hours, it might well test your patience, but it will reward you too.
Though Franz (August Diehl) is willing enough to serve in World War 2 – albeit in a medical capacity – his steadfast refusal to swear loyalty to Hitler, a man he knows to be evil, brings the authorities crashing down upon him. They can’t understand why he won’t just give up, but his force of will seems to genuinely come from a higher power. Franz believes that he must honour the responsibility bestowed upon humanity by God’s granting of free will, and he cannot back down. As a non-believer, I started more on the side of Franz’s confused, frightened family, frustrated that he seemed to be killing himself out of pride, but Malick lets the divine in gradually, and his script and Diehl’s powerful, internalised performance eventually swayed me.
Everything you want out of a Malick offering, you can find here. There are breathy voiceovers that seem to come from the spiritual plane, those wide lenses that lend his films such a particular look, and an abiding love of nature. Franz’s home village is situated in a valley of breathtaking beauty, and you could watch him and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) amble around the countryside for a long time – rare are the films where the setting itself is so sublimely soothing. Typical of the auteur who gave George Clooney two lines in The Thin Red Line, a lot of big names fill out the cast – including the final performances of the late Michael Nyqvist and Bruno Ganz – adding gravitas to every scene.
It’s magical to see all of these techniques in the service of something real for the first time since 2011’s Tree of Life. Malick is telling a distinct and satisfying story here with characters more than mere ciphers and afforded the opportunity to connect with the audience. This reset is most evident in the character of Franziska. Malick’s women are often more symbols than people, but this got especially bad post-Tree of Life, and Franziska offers a sturdy corrective, angry and forceful, more connected to nature and the earth than heavenly perfection.
Though there is no direct divine intervention, God is felt keenly in A Hidden Life, whether in subtle lighting cues that indicate His presence or in James Newton Howard’s soul-cleansing score. It’s a simple soundtrack, consisting of only a few refrains, but they’re reworked and reused in such skilful ways that their power builds and builds until it crashes over you in a profoundly moving finale. Malick makes you work for this emotional release, and it’d be understandable if you got tired before you reach it, but this is a pilgrimage well worth taking.