Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life marks a return to narrative form for the auteur director, aided, as is typical of Malick, by the world of nature — so reverently evoked as to become almost a character in its own right.
From the start, Malick establishes distance between the realities of World War II and an insulated village in northern Austria, where much of the drama unfolds. Black-and-white newsreel footage charts the rise of Adolf Hitler, then it’s off to the mountains where a peaceful farmer and conscientious objector named Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) lives a simple life with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), and their three young daughters.
Here, the war is remote. All they see or hear of it are the occasional uniformed officers who come to collect funds for the war effort or the low rumble of distant warplanes overhead. But the effects are surely felt. All eligible young men, including Jägerstätter, head off for military training, leaving their children, wives, and the elderly behind to tend to the farms.
The film covers about four years in the life of Jägerstätter, who’s based on a real-life figure who was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
After fulfilling his military service and returning to his mountain idyll, it becomes clear to Jägerstätter that the war is far from over. Only he’s no longer willing to fight for what he now sees as an unjust cause. His refusal to swear an oath to serve Hitler becomes a sticking point, first among his family and fellow villagers, then among the authorities.
The last third of the film is mostly set in the Berlin prison where he awaits his sentencing as a traitor to his country. He’s given several opportunities to have his crime stricken from his record. He’s offered a position as a medical officer, a post in which he wouldn’t have to fight but would still have to swear allegiance to Hitler — and he refuses. Several times we hear how his protest will have no impact outside of the prison walls and will only bring harm to himself and his family. So why does he do it? It’s a matter of personal integrity. A man of deep religious devotion, he’s taken the lessons of Jesus Christ to heart, aware that even the Catholic bishops are unwilling to offer guidance, having seen members of their own clergy sent to the concentration camps.
The most impactful moments of the film come by way of Malick’s observances of human nature and the human light in which he casts his characters. As cruel as some of them are — most notably the prison guards — they’re bound by duty. Jägerstätter is in the right and they know it. This is most clear in the exchange between Jägerstätter and Judge Lueben, played with sympathy by the late, great Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire, Downfall) in one of his final screen roles, who engages Jägerstätter in a private conversation on the day of his sentencing. The sentencing is a graceless, matter-of-fact affair that’s more a matter of legal formality than one driven by animosity.
In lush cinematography, the camera, always in fluid motion, captures breathtaking views of the mountainous terrain surrounding Jägerstätter’s village and juxtaposes this pastoral idyll with the somber, soulless prison scenes. One feels the passing of time, the bitter winters, and the marginally warmer summers. Fani waits and waits, having become a pariah among the villagers. The other women’s husbands are all off fighting the war and they resent Jägerstätter’s stance and her tacit approval of it.
They have a point. His protest brings unwanted attention to the village. But Malick’s film is ultimately about acceptance of one’s fate. Fani, like her husband, resigns herself to hers, doing the best she can, and taking what small comforts come her way — the laughter of the children, a few extra ounces of grain — with gratitude. Her stoicism pays off. It’s the ones who were angry who change, coming back around to offer aid and comfort. Perhaps they’re tired of fighting. Or maybe they realize that among their small number, in a setting where life and death are intimately tied to the rhythms of the seasons, all they really have is each other.