Terrence Malick is arguably the most contemplative director working in Hollywood today. Films like The Tree of Life and To The Wonder invite the viewer into Malick’s unique and perhaps idiosyncratic vision, combining strikingly beautiful cinematography with an impressionistic approach to the film’s story, resulting in an almost dreamlike narrative arc. Malick’s films don’t seem to tell stories so much as to invite the viewer into the middle of them.
His work has been described as “sacramental” and now here I’m calling him “contemplative,” but I think it’s worth mentioning that not everyone recognizes Malick as a genius. Some critics dismiss his films as self-indulgent, meandering, and pointless. Others suggest his work is uneven (I would concur: of the two movies I mentioned, I think The Tree of Life is a masterpiece while To the Wonder is, at best, an interesting failure). While I love the ethereal feel of Malick’s films, I must confess to sometimes feeling frustrated by what can feel like a self-conscious artsiness that obscures the tale he attempts to tell.
With all this in mind, I was cautiously hopeful about his latest film, A Hidden Life, which recounts the story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian martyr whose refusal to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler led to his execution in 1943. Knowing that Malick was recounting a true story — or, at least, a “story inspired by true events” — I hoped this would provide him the necessary structure to tell a straightforward story but in his own lush, allusive style.
And that’s exactly what Malick has done, and the result is a breathtaking beautiful — and heartbreaking — film, that tells this deeply spiritual story in a most deserving manner — as a contemplative parable of love.
The story is simple enough to be recounted in a short Wikipedia article. Franz (1907-1943) was an Austrian farmer who, after marrying his deeply religious wife Fani (1913-2013), embraced the way of faith himself, eventually becoming a Secular (Third Order) Franciscan. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the spring of 1938 — a move which Jägerstätter opposed, the only man in his village to do so — this farmer came to understand, as a matter of conscience, that he could not support the Nazi regime, fight for it, or swear any kind of allegiance to it. When in 1943 he was drafted, he presented himself to the authorities, and although numerous attempts were made to talk him out of his conviction, he remained steadfast, leading to his death by guillotine in August of that year.
Terrence Malick stretches this incredibly straightforward story into a movie almost three hours long, and does so by allowing the story to unfold at a profoundly leisurely pace. The first third of the film is gorgeous, depicting the simple life of farmers in this bucolic Alpine paradise. Franz and Fani are depicted as utterly, joyfully, sensually in love. They are generous people, opening their home to his mother and her sister, along with their three children. They work hard to farm their land, and live simply and well.
Soon enough, though, clouds appear on the horizon, from the sound of military aircraft buzzing in the distance to villagers collecting money for the war effort — and giving Franz dirty looks when he refuses to contribute. The story progresses by focussing on the farmer’s moral dilemma, and the advice he seeks from both his neighbors and the authorities of the church. When his bishop flatly tells him “You have a duty to the fatherland,” Franz makes an excuse for him, assuming the bishop may have feared that he was a spy.
Like so much of Malick’s work, the movie lingers over the natural beauty of the countryside and the simple pleasures of this twentieth-century peasant world. But when Franz is conscripted and reports to the army, he is immediately singled out for his refusal to take the oath. Malick is careful to take just as much time unpacking the hell of Franz’s imprisonment as he previously tarried over the joys of his rural life. As the story progresses from garrison to prison to military tribunal in Berlin, it feels like a slow-motion precursor to Koyaanisqatsi — as the backdrop of the story becomes increasingly urban, grimy, and congested. Like all wise contemplatives, Malick understands that we must be present to life’s horrors as surely as we cherish its joys.
The director treats his subject with almost hagiographical reverence — even on the day of his execution, Franz Jägerstätter is depicted comforting another distraught condemned man. At the same time, he refuses to downplay the brokenness of the institutional Catholic Church. Throughout the film, the ecclesial authorities are shown as willing conformists to the Nazi order, instructing the conscientious objector that his stance is meaningless, unfair to his family, and ultimately a betrayal of his country. We should not lose sight of the fact that when Jägerstätter was beatified in 2007, he received this honor from Pope Benedict XVI, who had been a member of the Hitler youth in his childhood.
Contemplative viewers of this film who know how the story will end, may find solace in trusting in the “larger story” of Jägerstätter’s eventual vindication in the eyes of the world. The farmer’s eventual recognition as a hero and a martyr lends an irony to the many people in the film who harangued him about how his conscientious objection would make no difference.
What I appreciated about the film was not only the thoughtful, slow-moving pace which enabled me to appreciate the story as a gradual unfolding of how a man came to form his conscience — but also the truly moving depiction of his love for his wife and children. Actors August Diehl and Valerie Pachner have a passionate on-screen chemistry that makes the love of Franz and Fani not only believable, but delectable. At the risk of sounding pious, their relationship as presented in this film seems truly sacramental. This was a movie as much about the sacrament of marriage as about the faith of a martyr.
For my money, it’s the best spiritual film I’ve seen since 2010’s Of Gods and Men — a very different story about martyrs, albeit told in a similar contemplative way. But A Hidden Life is not only contemplative, but profoundly beautiful — even while it never flinches from how heartbreaking the story is that it has to tell.
Incidentally, Thomas Merton fans may recognize the story of Franz Jägerstätter which Merton recounted in his book Faith and Violence.