An Ideal Man
By Jeff Reichert
A Hidden Life
Dir. Terrence Malick, U.S./Germany, Fox Searchlight
“Do you judge me?” asks Bruno Ganz, giving his final screen performance, near the dire close of Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. Ganz, playing a Nazi military judge, Leuben, queries Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who has become an unlikely thorn in the side of the German war machine. Franz, called up to join the fight against the Allied forces, will defiantly not swear allegiance to Adolf Hitlerand fight for the Nazis. This has led to his imprisonment and the likelihood of his execution at age 36. Franz answers that he does not judge Leuben, a man who has signed up to support Hitler, who has participated in the fight and has risen to such a rank that he can now decide the fate of a conscientious objector from a remote Austrian village. In this moment, however, when Franz’s life hangs in the balance, why is Leuben so deeply concerned with what Franz thinks of him?
A Hidden Life, Malick’s tenth film and perhaps his first true biographical fiction, examines the act of dissent over the course of a languorous three hours. The film arrives in two chunks. The first lasts around 70 minutes of screen time and spans from mid 1939 to March 1943, introducing us to Franz the farmer and father of three girls, deeply in love with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), comfortable in his Christian faith, firmly entrenched in a bucolic existence amidst the snow-capped alps ringing their home of St. Radegund, a small hamlet in Upper Austria a little over a hundred kilometers due east from Munich. As the war advances over these few years, it becomes ever clearer to Franz that this enterprise does not concord with his spiritual values and to everyone in his family and village that this handsome young man, a son of Radegund, will sacrifice himself for beliefs they can’t fathom.
The film’s second portion spends nearly two hours documenting the last five months of Franz’s life, a period that begins with him reporting for duty at a nearby military base and refusing to pledge to Hitler. After a moment’s confusion on the part of the officers, he’s arrested and then confined to a series of tiny cells before finally being moved to Berlin for his trial, conviction, and subsequent execution in August 1943. In this section of the film, Franz and Fani, though physically separated, remain connected through cinema via letters read in voiceover and Malick’s frequent cross-cutting from various prisons back to farm life at Radegund. The continued employment of wide-angle photography throughout heightens the discrepancy between the vastness of Franz’s and Fani’s existence and the unnatural closeness of the captivity in which Franz finished his life.
Throughout A Hidden Life, Franz’s fate is rarely in doubt. When it becomes clear the war will continue even after the fall of France, it seems only a matter of time before Franz will be called to join, though Fani holds out hope that his crucial role as a farmer will render him safe. He shares his doubts about the war with his local priest but is told instead to think of his family and how meaningless his individual sacrifice would be. A meeting with the area’s bishop is even less satisfying. Franz: “If our leaders are not good, what does one do … I want to save my life, but not through lies.” The bishop’s reply: “You have a duty to the Fatherland. The church tells you so.” He even discusses his plight with a local artist who muses ruefully about years spent painting a suffering (Christ’s) of which he knows little and how the net result of his life’s work seems to be producing images digested by an audience of worshippers who revere Jesus but who, if they’d lived in his time, would have surely joined the mass that put him on the cross.
There is no climactic scene in which Franz wavers or approaches recanting, even as his Nazi tormentors dole out punishments in effort to shake him from his course. He’s moved but unchanged by Fani’s plea: “You can’t change the world. The world’s stronger. I need you.” Seemingly everyone around him implores Franz to pledge to Hitler and save his life. “What cost is a few words, really?” becomes a common argument. A Hidden Life never verbalizes for the viewer why this stand is so important to Franz, what crucial bit of his psychology or personal history led him to steer this course. In one of the many dialogues he participates in with local figures in the first section of the film, he wonders: “Invading other countries, preying on the weak … Maybe the other ones are the heroes. The ones defending their homes.” Beyond this, Franz is largely quiet about what he knows deep down he must do.
Instead of talking, we see snatches of Franz’s life and watch how it changes as the war encroaches. He is called up for training early in the film, which seems merely a jaunty adventure—farm boys playing at being soldiers—until they’re asked to clap and cheer at newsreel footage of Nazi conquests featuring crumpled human forms. The local beer garden becomes a place where the once-friendly mayor rants in a strikingly contemporary fashion about the scourge of immigrants; passersby exclaim “Heil, Hitler” to each other and accost those who do not reply in kind; local non-Christians live in fear for their lives. Though far from the front, and the economic insecurity that prompted Hitler’s rise, the village comes to be gripped by a grotesque fervor for conflict. When Franz’s objection becomes known in the town, the Jägerstätters are derided and shunned, even the young daughters are ostracized, and in one jarring scene of pinpoint precise detail, a local man plunders their fields in broad daylight without fear of reprisal, leaving with only a glance towards Fani and basket of freshly exhumed kohlrabi.
To find Franz’s dissent enigmatic is to let oneself be limited by the bounds of conventional dramaturgical rules and to ignore the plethora of visual evidence Malick supplies to clarify why it is impossible for Franz to act in any other way. Our immersion in Franz’s life in St. Radegund throughout the film’s first section is gorgeous, full of love and pleasure and faith and honest connection to place—an idyll in the truest sense. A long shot early on sees Franz stop and look at a copse of trees, and a shot/reverse shot between them suggests some kind of communion, a knowledge being exchanged. Perhaps he sees his God there. Fani says early on, “we lived above the clouds” and there truly does seem to be something heavenly about this existence. Malick has always seen more possibility for grace in nature than most artists—think back to the once-derided dinosaur scenes of The Tree of Life, in which the filmmaker had the temerity to suggest compassion may not be a virtue limited only to humans. Throughout A Hidden Life Malick’s camera returns to massively still landscape imagery suggesting a consciousness other than human, alive like the blowing grasses of The Thin Red Line or the waterways of The New World. In this place, from these mountains and forests and rivers, it’s clear that Franz has learned something that aligns with his Christian faith in a fashion that forges his fundamental inability to compromise for the sake of momentary reprieve.
A Hidden Life doesn’t open in Radegund. It begins instead with 1.33:1 black-and-white archival footage of Hitler’s ascent, tracking the growth of Nazism into a mass movement and how that movement found power through connection with Bavaria’s agrarian heritage and customs. The film’s first original shot explodes the frame into a widescreen vista of Franz alone in a verdant field, swinging a scythe—A Hidden Life is political from its very first juxtaposition: the many against one. Over the course of the film’s length, Malick slowly turns over Franz’s action and its rippling repercussions, inserting contrapuntal, colliding evidence that forces us to ask all the same questions Franz’s brethren ask of him: How can he risk leaving his family behind? Can he really expect to change anything? Isn’t his stand narcissistic in its futility?
It is true that Franz’s refusal to serve does not derail the Nazi war effort, and he knows that it won’t—he even dreams of masses of trains continually rushing forward; visualized in more B&W archival images, here Malick nods to the conveyances that enabled the Holocaust. Yet if Franz’s dissent is not consequential beyond the bounds of his own person and small family unit, why do the forces massed against him seem so concerned with his case? Why is he charged with wehrkraftzersetzung—the undermining of military morale? Why is he brought all the way to Berlin to be tried if his dissent was a minor inconvenience? Throughout A Hidden Life, the reactions to Franz’s chosen method of protest suggest something any dissident anywhere should remember about power derived from Fascistic or Nationalistic mass and their offer of security by way of a top-down identity: it is nervous, it is fragile, and it is always looking over its shoulder.
A Hidden Life reminds us that a courageous moral act need not be immediately efficacious to produce meaningful impact. Franz’s calm certitude in his decision, arrived at through faith, personal reflection, and individual experience, poses a challenge to all those around him, especially those who’ve decided for various reasons to align themselves with the forces of nationalism. This is why Leuben’s simple question to Franz—do you judge me?—forms the crux of A Hidden Life’s politics: in it we can witness the constant quaking fear of those who seek to be validated outside of themselves. In this current moment of rampant demagoguery and encroaching political and cultural fascisms, Malick’s message is potent.
Watching A Hidden Life pit a man of conviction against a mass swayed by the direction of the winds clearly feels relevant in our political moment, which one hopes we won’t be forced to look back upon decades hence as a sadly farcical replay of the mid-1930s. But it also brought to mind the recent troll-storm that erupted in the wake of Martin Scorsese’s rather innocuous comments about the phenomenon of Marvel movies. On the one side: a lone figure, an artist, who has lived and breathed and expanded the possibilities of his medium, turned it inside and out over the course of decades, loved it even to the point of producing documents of his learning about and drawing connections through cinema (his Voyage films) so that he can share that knowledge with others. On the opposite side: a mob of the easily aggrieved so wounded on behalf of their beloved corporate cultural products that they flooded social media (another corporate cultural product, natch) for days with nonsensical, and often factually ignorant, ad hominem attacks. On the one side: deep commitment, internal resolve, lifelong study. On the other: externally derived self-definition, hair trigger insecurity, disregard for truth. I don’t mean here to imply that super fans of the MCU or the Disney Industrial Complex are necessarily fascists, but there are energies of the authoritarian impulses of the 1930s that echo frightfully across things like GamerGate, slavishly unthinking brand worship, and, more obviously, the contemporary Republican Party.
If Malick’s recent trilogy of films about searchers—To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song—detailed protagonists set adrift by external temptations and forces, A Hidden Life is the inverse: Franz has arrived at his own conclusions based on his interpretation of the world and his faith, and he emerges from this exercise unshakable. Convictions like Franz’s or Scorsese's (see also: Silence) will always be mystifying to those who aren’t able to manufacture their own—whether we are describing the large adult sons driving “fan” culture, average citizens who are taught to hate brown people by things they see on television, or even critics of art mad at a work because it doesn’t offer itself up on a platter for their easy digestion. More than mystifying, these convictions become angering because those driven to that anger are afraid at the lack they find in themselves.
Radegund (the initial title for A Hidden Life) was a sixth-century daughter of Thuringian nobility who turned in her later years toward an extreme asceticism that may have shortened her life—she abstained from all meat products and participated in flagellant practices. Both Franz and Radegund were choosers. (Coincidentally both passed in the month of August.) Malick is also one who chooses—in his case, it is a personal aesthetic vision unique in contemporary cinema that continues to evolve in fascinating ways alongside the technological possibilities available to him. It was initially reported that A Hidden Life was something of a return to conventional narrative forms after the highly fractured Song to Song, but these claims are proven by the resulting work to have been somewhat overblown, even if the film does hew broadly toward the chronological. Malick is still shooting and editing his material as if the events we witness were captured cinema vérité—his camera chasing to catch up with the action as it happens, edits crashing in at odd points to move us through space, lending an air of this moment-ness to every sequence. Like his most recent works, A Hidden Life feels conjured on the spot, gestural and provisional, as though if we looked away for a minute and looked back it could change entirely. Of special note in A Hidden Life are moments where cinematographer Jörg Widmer’s careering Steadicam shots slam into vast, imposing landscapes of the Alps, looking over our human folly implacably.
The last few minutes of Franz’s life, and the last few of the film, are perhaps the darkest in Malick’s entire cinema—the slaughterhouse, glimpses of a guillotine, the executioner dressed in old-fashioned finery. The camera here seems nervous, almost shying away from that which it doesn’t want to see, where earlier it always rushed forward. So it is only natural, then, for the film to open itself back up. In the end, we return to the beginning—the Alpine village, Franz driving up on his motorcycle, meeting Fani in her best dress. The flow of images continues, suggesting that life in Radegund goes on. Promise is eternal here. Through the film, the letters exchanged by Franz and Fani are read in English, but the final few are uttered only in German, left hidden for the couple. The film closes with George Eliot’s last line from Middlemarch: “…for 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.” Thanks to this film Franz is somewhat less hidden, even if he was a man who kept the best of himself inside.