Love in the time of Hitler.
Birdsong, treewind, hill and dale, the sky above, the grass below, children laughing, life, love! A Hidden Life is another Terrence Malick nature poem, transforming a true tale of conscientious objection into a ravishing portrait of goodness in a time of tyranny. August Diehl plays Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian citizen drafted into wartime military service who refused to swear an oath of fealty to Adolf Hitler. Today we recognize that as a heroic act, halfway to sainthood. The movie tracks how Franz’s unmutuality threatens to tear his beautiful world apart.
In the beginning, all is well. Franz and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), are farmers in the village of Radegund. They live on heavenly earth, where their children pick apples and chase little piglets under the the summer sun. How green is their valley — and then Fani hears the distant sound of a fighter plane. For a long time, everything still looks postcard-pretty. But the local townspeople are complaining about swarming foreigners. Neighbors start demanding a Nazi salute. There are refugees in the forest. And a postman on a bicycle keeps ringing his bells, carrying draft papers that could turn even the kindest man into a soldier for the Third Reich.
Franz would prefer not to. “We’re killing innocent people,” he complains, “preying on the weak.” He’s the kind of Catholic who pays attention in church, and so he doesn’t recall any part of the Gospels where Jesus says what Hitler’s preaching. A Hidden Life tracks his rigorously logical approach to quiet resistance. He tells the local priest (Tobias Moretti) that he doesn’t want to fight — and the holy man says, “Your sacrifice would benefit no one.” It’s a dangerous time to protest, even for men of the cloth. Franz takes his case to the bishop (Michael Nyqvist), who offers no respite. The war effort obeys no law of god; they are melting church bells for bullets.
Radegund turns against Franz. Some people are true believers in the cause. Mostly, they’re frustrated that he won’t just go along like everyone else. Refusal to take the oath will mean death — and what will happen to his family? Will there be reprisals against his village? “We have to stand up to evil,” Fritz says, a line that could come out of any blockbuster movie. He’s just one person, though, and he’s not even properly fighting anyone. “What purpose does it serve?” his lawyer (Matthias Schoenaerts) will ask him.”You’re doing no one any good,” looming officers at a military tribunal will tell him. “No one.”
A Hidden Life combines familiar elements from many of Malick’s movies. The painterly farmhouse recalls 1978’s Days of Heaven. Lines like “Nature does not notice the sorrow that has come over the people” could come right out of his other World War II homily, 1998’s The Thin Red Line. The whole idea of grounding a vast true-life historical tale in a symphonic romance suggests 2005’s The New World, while the restless (and sometimes formless) storytelling has been present in all Malick’s work since 2011’s The Tree of Life.
At least three films in that last paragraph are masterpieces of human expression, and I admit to a soft spot for all of Malick’s meandering directorial efforts in this oddly busy decade. Unlike 2012’s To the Wonder, 2016’s Knight of Cups, or 2017’s Song to Song, this new movie has a clear plot-purpose to orient itself around. There is an obvious problem — will Franz go through with his great refusal? — which connects vividly to larger matters. God is a character: glimpsed in the omnipresent crucifixes on every wall, much-invoked, and even spoken to in voiceover. “When have our prayers not been answered?” Fani asks. “He won’t send us more than we can bear.” Hitler’s a character too, glimpsed in eerie newsreel footage. (In one clip, the terrible dictator plays with an adoring child.) This is the sort of movie where someone will point out, with casual just-us-chatting brevity, that Christianity has produced “20 centuries of failure.”
Diehl has a somber strength, but his Franz is a bit of a cipher, a sibling to the wandering moodboards played by Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling in Malick’s modern-romance trilogy. Pachner turns Fani into the real emotional core, worrying over the horrors of home while Franz moves further into the hallways of corrosive power. There are incredible performances that could be short films unto themselves. The late Nyqvist marvels as a man who clearly cannot say what his entire religious life should have prepared him to say. Another deceased performer, Bruno Ganz, has a stunning scene as a tribunal judge with a conscience he can’t acknowledge.
A Hidden Life is long, cusping on three hours, and sheer repetition dulls some of its potent power. The best film in Malick’s post-Tree of Life wandering period was Knight of Cups, which cut six or seven love affairs into a tight two-hour kaleidoscope of elemental imagery, SoCal tripping from beach across freeways to studio lots and the desert. It’s a pinnacle in Malick’s collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose visuals suggested the eye of God floating in the memory of a molecule. A Hidden Life’s cinematographer is Jörg Widmer, Malick’s longtime camera operator. His work is handsome and a tad too dutiful. There are so many gorgeous shots of Franz scything through farmland, and I kept wishing someone had scythed a half-hour off the running time.
The cast speaks a mixture of German and ahistoric English. Notably, some of the nastiest Nazi lines are in German, while actual husband-to-wife love letters are translated. (A more topical move, sadly, would’ve been making English the language of fascism.) Franz is passive by nature, and merely not doing the wrong thing sends him down a brutal path. You might think he has fallen so far, unshaven, beaten, locked away. “But I am free,” he says. We must honor his liberation, here in our own prison. Grade: B+