The title of Terrence Malick’s new film is taken from a George Eliot quote on the final page of 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.” The “unhistoric act” the film refers to is Franz Jägerstätter’s refusal to swear an oath to Hitler and fight for the Nazis during World War II. It’s a thought-provoking story, which asks tough questions concerning faith and religion. It’s a timely story, thanks to the rise of extreme nationalism. It’s also a poignant and deeply affecting story; the writer-director’s best film since 2011’s Tree of Life.Malick has already crafted a WWII feature, with 1998’s The Thin Red Line his return to moviemaking following a 20-year hiatus. But where that film placed the audience slap-bang in the middle of the action by depicting the Battle of Guadalcanal, this is a very different kind of war movie, with A Hidden Life playing out a world away from the front line. Aside from newsreel footage of the Fuhrer overseeing Nazi rallies, parades and processions, the film’s early scenes concern an idyllic life in the quaint Austrian village of St. Radegund.
It’s 1939 and Franz lives with his wife Fani and their daughters, working and living off the luscious Alpine land, which allows Malick to fill the film with elegiac imagery of rolling hills, babbling brooks and seemingly endless fields of wheat. Such shots are his trademark, and at times reminiscent of the director’s 1978 sophomore effort Days of Heaven. But unlike some of his more recent films – namely To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song – the naturalism never slips into cliché or self-parody, with stunning tracking shots presenting the Jägerstätters as a family at one with nature, finding joy in the tranquility that surrounds them.
Watch the trailer for A Hidden Life below:
But the storm clouds – both literal and metaphorical – are approaching, and when WWII arrives, their peaceful existence is shattered. Franz is sent to the military camp to prepare for battle but doesn’t believe in the Nazi cause. Via voiceover – another Terrence Malick trademark – we hear the letters that the couple exchange, wherein Franz asks “Oh my wife, what has happened to our country.”
It’s also here that Franz makes the decision that changes both their lives, his conscientious objection landing him in prison awaiting trial. The rest of the film is concerned Franz’s hellish existence behind bars, where he’s lonely, abused, and in danger of losing his mind. These scenes are juxtaposed with his wife’s horrors, as paranoia and fear take hold of their tiny town and Fani becomes an outcast and pariah to the people of St. Radegund. Friends and family beg Franz to reconsider, suggesting his choice benefits no one, and urging him to “think one thing and say another.” The church – now complicit with the Nazis – pretty much abandons him, and with religion lost, all Franz has left is his own faith.
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Trouble is, while we know where Fani is coming from, standing by her man because their love is so intertwined with his principles, we never understand Franz in quite the same way. It’s clear that he’s stoic and stubborn, but as proceedings progress, Franz says less and less. We want – need – the character to speak up; to communicate with his wife when he sees her for the last time, and to give the audience a better understanding of his unwavering self-belief. But we get nothing, making the final few scenes especially frustrating.
As Franz, August Diehl – who played an officer on the other side of the conflict in Inglourious Basterds – does wonders with very little dialogue, affectionate and loving in the film’s early scenes, then bravery personified when his situation becomes even worse. Valerie Pachner breaks your heart as Fani, enduring unspeakable hardships, desperate for her husband to come home, yet never pushing him to change his mind or weaken his resolve. There’s also compelling support from Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist – both of whom sadly passed away after A Hidden Life completed principal photography in 2016 – while Matthias Schoenaerts makes a brief but critical cameo.
There’s true artistry in every outdoor frame, with Malick employing long-time camera operator Jorg Widmer as cinematographer for the first time. Their use of natural light helps turn A Hidden Life into an impossibly beautiful film. James Newton Howard’s score should also be singled out, his lavish choral pieces perfectly complementing that imagery, the film frequently a stunning assault on the senses.