In a small Austrian church hidden in the mountains, a wizened painter lifts brush to marble, restoring life and color to the frescos adorning the walls. He pauses and gazes upwards towards the gold-framed murals on the roof, designed to capture the eyes of laypeople and raise their heads and hearts towards the heavenly and eternal. He sighs and thinks of the peasants in the nearby village who for generations have lived and worshipped, been baptized, and eulogized beneath them. “They imagine that if they lived in Christ’s time,” he mutters aloud, “they wouldn’t have done what the others did.” Nearby another man, not a painter but one of these chastised villagers, stands and listens silently. The painter regards his work and continues bitterly: “We create admirers. We do not create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it.” Now the two stand outside the church, the one fussing with the plaster walls, the other silent still. “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo on his head,” the painter says, fighting back a lifetime of tears, “someday I’ll paint the true Christ.”
Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life follows the life not of the painter, but of this second man, the one who stands and listens and turns the former’s words over in his mind. His name is Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and in a few years he will be dead, murdered by the Nazi regime that steamrolled through Europe and possessed his countrymen with rapacious hatred and cruelty. His was a simple life of honest toil before these Nazis arrived, working the fields with his wife Franziska (Valeria Pachner), doting on his three daughters, singing and dancing in the pub in the village center. But then strange uniformed men arrived and ordered him to serve in the army of Adolf Hitler. And maybe he would have, not as a soldier, but as a member of the hospital corps. Or maybe he could’ve served as a postman like the teenager who zips through their town on a bicycle delivering letters, bills, summons, and draft cards. Or maybe he could’ve gotten a desk job, pushing papers far from combat where he’d never run the risk of holding a weapon or killing. All these he refused for the simple reason that to serve in the army as commanded, he had to swear personal loyalty to the Führer. And that he could not do. Arrested, tried, sentenced, and executed for his refusal to swear allegiance to Hitler, he has since been declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church.
Yet it is this painter who appears for only a few moments in the film’s near three-hour runtime who casts one of the largest shadows, for he represents none other than Malick himself, an artist of deep and passionate faith who toils at his work full of the knowledge that it will probably never change or save the world. Since his 1973 directorial debut Badlands, he has created one of the most doggedly idiosyncratic filmographies of the art form, achieving an international notoriety rare for directors from a country known more for big-budget blockbusters and brain-dead spectacle than introspective experimentation. Known for punishing production cycles where films can take decades to finance and shoot and further years to assemble in the editing room, he rejects traditional plotting and characterization to emphasize existential angst and philosophical turmoil. Roger Ebert once commented that the overarching theme of his movies is how “human lives diminish beneath the overarching majesty of the world.” But this is only partly true, for it ignores the religious element churning beneath his frames. The prototypical Malick character finds themselves in indescribable awe before a world they cannot understand while trapped in lives they cannot control, seeking intangible meaning and purpose whether they find themselves on battlefields (The Thin Red Line ), within Pax Americana suburbia (The Tree of Life ), or without the vapid entertainment industry (Knight of Cups ). Many have likened his work to the Wisdom literature and poetry of the Bible, his characters alternatively embodying the resigned fatalism of Ecclesiastes, the sacred sexual longings of Song of Songs, and the ruminative reflections of Proverbs.
A Hidden Life see’s him drawing primarily from Biblical narratives. At first we see parallels with Job as Jägerstätter’s idyllic life is ripped away from him piece by piece. He’s torn from his family for compulsory basic training and then returns to find them ostracized from the community for their refusal to embrace Nazism. Former friends and neighbors steal from their fields, reject them from the markets, and spit in their path. And like Job who was challenged in his pious grief by his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, some come to Jägerstätter and tell him to bend his knee to Hitler. There’s the village mayor who calls him a traitor, the nearby bishop who tells him service to the Fatherland is his duty, and an assortment of elders who chastise him for not donating to a Nazi “veteran’s fund.” Only the church painter and his wife serve as twin whirlwinds from the desert, strengthening his resolve.
Once Jägerstätter is arrested the film alternates between sequences of his imprisonment and trial and Franziska’s struggles as a single mother in a community that’s rejected her. Once in jail Jägerstätter becomes like Paul in the last chapters of Acts as he’s transferred from prison to prison, baffling and enraging his guards who wish him dead but cannot kill him. Finally he arrives in the capital of Berlin where he’s tried by the Reichskriegsgericht, the highest Nazi military court, and his story becomes that of Jesus in the Gospels, not just in the commonly known details of him being beaten by his guards and executed, but in subtler ways too. During his final trial, he’s pulled aside by one of the senior judges and they have a conversation that echoes Jesus’ confrontation with Pontius Pilate which ended with the procurator finding himself sympathetic to his prisoner but helpless to save him. Then watch in Jägerstätter’s final moments as he awaits his death by guillotine and he comforts and kisses a fellow condemned prisoner while a third looks on in confused contempt, all in understated reenactment of Jesus’s relationship with the two thieves crucified beside him.
Mention must be made of the Franziska sequences as well, which can be seen to echo the tribulations of Mary during her son’s imprisonment, torture, and execution. Mary, whom Christian tradition believes to have been widowed by the time of Jesus’ adult ministry, must have labored as Franziska did without her eldest son or husband to help keep their family together. Many viewers might find these sequences tedious or irrelevant, but they serve as a foundation that keeps the film from floating away into a torpor of breathless reverence for Jägerstätter.
A Hidden Life is a supreme artwork, but viewers might find Malick’s methods frustrating if not enraging. Despite this being his tightest narrative focus in years, the film is still captured with Malick’s trademark God’s-eye camera which swoops and pans, dips and travels over the wilderness surrounding his characters. There are lovingly indulgent shots of babbling brooks, foggy mountains, and towering forests. Likewise, there are several sequences that seem to exist purely to populate the edges of the film with local color, such as a lonely Franziska and her daughters watching a church procession file past their fields or several scenes of Jägerstätter’s wandering the prison yard during exercise hours in enforced silence. Do these add to the story? Do we need a scene of Franziska scolding her daughters for knocking over a pail of water in their living room? Of Jägerstätter carefully setting aright a knocked over umbrella in a shop or dropping an extra crust of bread during mealtime into the plate of one of his fellow prisoners? Narratively speaking, no. But they orient the audience within a larger cosmic awareness where all things are part of a greater whole. This is not the manicured reality of a Hollywood film where characters and sets cease to exist when they’re offscreen. This film is three hours of an entire universe vivisected into celluloid where the insignificant games played by children in a wheat field are given equal weight as a man suffering in prison. This is a world seen omnipresently, considered omnipotently, loved omnisciently.
Yet still the painter in Jägerstätter’s village paints his portraits knowing that his work cannot stop the Nazi hordes, and neither will it convert people from casual obedience to a faith borne of sacrifice and resistance. It’s difficult to believe Malick thinks any differently now. Art has famously proved little use in the realm of averting global crisis—songs didn’t stop the Transatlantic Slave Trade, poetry didn’t still the guns at Verdun or Leningrad, and movies didn’t end the Cold War. Kurt Vonnegut once famously quipped that the combined power of protest art during the Vietnam era had the collected force of a custard pie, and this is perhaps true. And in this current political climate of resurgent global fascism and right-wing nativism, it’s difficult to think that movies like A Hidden Life will have any more effect. The film’s title puts that into question. “A Hidden Life” is taken from a line in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
“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.“
Art may not stop the aforementioned evils of the world, but still the Slave Trade ceased, still the World Wars ended, and still the USSR collapsed. Evil was confronted and countenanced, and who can be credited for their defeat? Ordinary human beings, ones living simple, unacknowledged lives who in their own way rejected the cruelty and monstrosity of the world. One by one. Piece by piece. Maybe A Hidden Life can’t save the world. But perhaps, one imagines, it can help sanctify it. And maybe those who see it can be sanctified, too, and inspired in their own way to fight and resist the evils that surround us.