In "A Hidden Life," his most explicitly Christian movie to date, Terrence Malick explores the extremely timely issue of what one person can do when his government starts acting immorally. As the film’s true-life subject, Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who became a conscientious objector during World War II, asks his local priest: "If our leaders, if they are evil, what does one do?"
For three hours, Malick cinematographer Jörg Widmer leans into the notion of film as meditation, opening with a little context-setting newsreel footage of Nazi Germany, before spending much of the time in northern Austria, creating absolutely gorgeous images that demand to be seen on the largest possible screen. Do you need three hours of them? Well …
Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), live on the side of a mountain and work the gorgeous land with their hands. (Also with scythes. Yes, you remember such images from Malick’s early masterpiece, "Days of Heaven." This guy loves a scythe.)
Jägerstätter is drafted by the Third Reich in 1940 but gets to return home. He is convinced his country has gone mad, which it had. He decides he cannot serve. He and his family face the opprobrium of his village. He is taken to prison. His fate is easy to guess (and Google).
By contemporary standards, "A Hidden Life" is virtually a silent movie. Aside from some voice-overs and minimal dialogue here and there, Malick chooses to communicate his hero’s inner turmoil by focusing on Diehl’s face, or Pachner’s, or those of the soldiers and villagers. Or the mountains or the prairies. This makes for an oddly solitary experience, which may very well be the point — Jägerstätter seems alone, deeply so, in his stance.
RELATED: AFF review: ‘The Report’ brings to life an ugly episode of recent U.S. history
But it’s also difficult to parse exactly what his stance is. Is his conviction religious? Is it personal? Does he not want to kill innocent people? If so, why? Because it is inherently immoral? Because he fears God’s wrath if he does? Does he fear God’s wrath if he doesn’t serve his country and decides to become a pacifist anyway?
We learn almost none of this. We are left to meditate upon this life. What one gets out of it is, to a rather extreme degree, what one puts into it.
Editor’s note: This review was originally published during Austin Film Festival 2019.