After a trio of personal, abstract, and, for many viewers, deeply boring and pretentious features, the ever-elusive Terrence Malick finishes up a shockingly prolific decade of filmmaking with his most coherent and accessible work since 1978's Days of Heaven. A Hidden Life is a worthwhile re-introduction to the writer-director's style and themes, even for those who have long given up on him.
Based on true events, A Hidden Life is a moving portrait of Franz Jägerstätter (charismatic German actor August Diehl, who you'll remember as the crafty Nazi in Inglourious Basterds' tavern scene), an ordinary farmer from a pastoral village in the Austrian Alps. In 1939, as World War II erupts, Franz, like most men his age, is drafted into military service. He willingly reports to basic training, but when he is later told to swear loyalty to Adolf Hitler, he suddenly refuses. This decision takes a toll on both Franz and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), as they soon find themselves persecuted by their own friends and neighbors. Finally, in 1943, Franz is arrested for disloyalty. With the Third Reich at the peak of its powers, his fate is sealed.
A Hidden Life is your basic story of maintaining your moral integrity at all costs. But unlike Catholic superstar Mel Gibson's two bombastic approaches to the subject (The Passion of the Christ and Hacksaw Ridge), the more quietly spiritual Malick doesn't reward Franz, or the audience, with the greatness of his sacrifice. Indeed, the somewhat generic title of the film is clarified at the end with a quote from George Eliot's Middlemarch, which states that the "growing good of the world" is owed not only to the Jesuses, the Gandhis, and the Martin Luther Kings, but also "to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."
Despite the gorgeousness of Malick's wide-angle visuals (director of photography Jörg Widmer cannily emulates the style of Malick's regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki), A Hidden Life can be a tough watch, as Franz suffers so cruelly at the hands of others. Over and over, he is told that he can simply feign loyalty to der Fürher and keep the truth in his heart. That he can serve in a hospital instead of on the battlefield. That his lone act of defiance will never be known to others or change the course of the war. That he is not only risking his own life but abandoning his family. All this is true, and Franz knows it. Yet he barely speaks a word in his own defense. He would literally rather die than vow allegiance to someone whose values he rejects, and that's that. If you don't get it, Franz figures, then what's the point in spelling it out?
For today's cynical, sheltered audiences, Franz's determination is hard to swallow. Even though we all agree that he was right to renounce Hitler, you almost feel like shouting out, "Just sign the stupid loyalty oath and go home to your loving family!" But this is precisely Malick's point: to understand Franz Jägerstätter's sacrifice is to understand the true meaning of faith. To dismiss him as a stubborn fool is to ignore the very message of the film.
At three hours in length, A Hidden Life does ask a lot out of you. But other than his characters' inevitable prayers to God, Malick's characteristic voiceovers are thankfully limited to readings of the simple letters that Franz and Fani send each other. (The German/Austrian actors mostly speak in English; presumably Malick didn't want subtitles to distract from his imagery.) With its relatively strong narrative – the film is also very much a love story – it holds your attention a thousand times better than, for example, the meandering Song to Song. I think it is poignant, vital cinema, and I think it will stand as one of Malick's greatest achievements, even if for now it is – ironically or perhaps fittingly – as overlooked as Franz Jägerstätter himself.