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Natan Mladin reviews Terrence Malick’s new film. 27/01/2020
A Hidden Life is one of the most profound and searching films I have ever seen. It is director Terrence Malick’s most explicitly religious work to date, surpassing The Tree of Life from 2011. Though thankfully not a ‘Christian film’, it offers one of the most complex, beautiful, and uncompromising portrayals of faith on the screen.
At the heart of A Hidden Life is the story, based on real events, of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), a simple Austrian farmer and devout Catholic who, drawing deeply from his faith and the love of his wife Franziska or Fanni (played by Valerie Pachner), refuses to swear allegiance to Hitler and fight in his unholy wars. Unlike the more famous Sophie and Hans Scholl or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Franz’s heroism lies not in a public act of bravery, but in the quiet refusal to call evil good. Throughout the story, his silent witness speaks with searing clarity. Ostracised by his community in the mountain village of St Radegund, counselled by priests to compromise, he is uprooted from his home and family, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately killed.
A masterpiece of Christian existentialism, A Hidden Life is a remarkable study in choosing what is right, at great personal cost, and bearing witness to truth through quiet opposition to evil. At just under three hours, it unfolds patiently like a cinematic oratorio, yet never drags. In contrast to Malick’s earlier films, A Hidden Life is more conventional, at least from a narrative point of view. The story develops linearly even if the camera work, pensive voice–overs, breathtaking landscapes, the mystical play of light, and other Malick trademarks are all there in the film.
At once inspiring and discomfiting is Franz’s remarkable moral clarity. ‘Don’t they know evil when they see it?’ his voice whispers early on in the film, although scenes of Hitler’s war and Nazi concentration camps are conspicuously absent. A simple intuition of what is the right thing to do blossoms into a principled refusal to strike a pact with the devil. In a scene reminiscent of Jesus before Pilate, he says plainly to the judge who is about to pronounce his death sentence: ‘I have this feeling inside me and I can’t do what I believe is wrong. I want to save my life, but not through lies.’
Throughout the story, Franz is relentlessly tempted to yield, his decision challenged from all possible ethical angles. ‘Consider the consequences of your actions for your loved ones’, counsels the village priest. ‘Your sacrifice would benefit no one’, says another consequentialist voice. ‘You have a duty to the fatherland,’ the bishop reminds him. ‘You think you’re better?… This is pride!’, says a prison official. ‘You think you can change the course of history?’ ‘What can we do, little people, here…?’ ask a number of fatalist voices. And on it goes, as Franz is taken through the wilderness of temptation and agonising taunts. With each counsel and question, the pressure to give in grows stronger, but his resolve grows stronger still, as he digs deeper into his faith in a suffering God and clings firmly to his ‘true fatherland’.
Watching A Hidden Life with the benefit of hindsight, we naturally identify with Franz’s stand. We applaud his course. ‘Surely, it was the right thing to do,’ we self–assuredly think to ourselves. But if we’re honest, we feel the force of all the dissuading voices, the pull to ‘just say the words, and think what you want’, the awful pain of making your loved ones suffer, unavoidably implicated in your costly choice. Malick is unsparing and masterful in conveying the seeming absurdity of Franz’s act.
There are many things that lie at the root of his moral clarity and steadfastness. But among them, and perhaps less obvious, is his (and Franziska’s) closeness, through hard work and moments of wonder, to the rhythms and orderliness of an enchanted creation. Franz is formed as an individual to see evil for what it is by being attuned to the goodness, truth, and beauty woven into the world. In all of Malick’s films, A Hidden Life being no exception, nature is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. The fertile ground, the trees, the mountain peaks, the skies, the rushing rivers and waterfalls, all have a voice in Malick’s A Hidden Life. Though they are silent, they speak loudly, aiding Franz to see the truth and stay the course in defying evil.
In a world where exclusionary tribes proliferate, contractual relations are the norm, and nature ‘groans’ plundered, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a powerful call: not just to a steadfast if costly resistance to evil – this is obvious – but also to a covenantal existence, a life of committed responsibility, to each other, to the natural world, and to our future.
 Thanks to Chris Oldfield for the reference to covenant.
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight. All rights reserved.
Nathan joined Theos in 2016. He holds an MTh and PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast. He is the author of several Theos publications, including “Forgive Us Our Debts: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter”, a report on the ethics of debt (with Barbara Ridpath), and the chapter on ‘Václav Havel’ in “The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God” (Biteback, 2017). His current research interests include: religion in London; theology and economics; the ethics of AI/robotics; and theology and contemporary art.
Posted 27 January 2020
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