A Hidden Life is based on the letters of Austrian martyr and saint Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a farmer whose objection to the Nazis and their war efforts led to his imprisonment and execution. Writer-director Terrence Malick tells the story in largely epistolary fashion, with voiceovers taking the form of letters between Franz and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner).
The first hour of A Hidden Life feels like anti-fascist ASMR, a woefully relevant depiction of a people’s casual descent into evil. We open with Franz describing the day he met Franziska. He was riding his motorcycle; she was wearing her best dress. The beautiful score by James Newton Howard sells it. It is, like Malick’s best, a visual poem, capturing a pure and true love between two people who have built a life together in a place of their choosing, atop a mountain where nothing can reach them. They have three daughters, friends, a local church.
After Hitler comes to power, though, Franz voices his objections in ways both large and small. Slowly, their friends and village turn against his contentious objections. He asks the church for support, but its representatives are too afraid to help him. Life becomes difficult for Franz and his family until he is eventually called up for military service and he refuses to participate.
There’s nothing subtle about Malick’s approach to Franz’s martyrdom. We follow his life in prison as he acts kindly to his follow prisoners while being alternately tortured and offered chances at freedom if he just signs an oath of loyalty. The Nazis even offer him a spot as a medic behind the front-lines; he still refuses. Franz has three daughters and a wife at home, and yet he refuses. They point out that a signature does not mean he is changing his heart, and yet he refuses. It is a moral puzzle that will play out differently to different audiences: Is Franz heroic in his actions or is he delinquent in his responsibilities to his family?
I’ll admit: The torture and prison sequences sometimes slow the last 90 minutes of the three-hour running time to a monotonous crawl. Perhaps intended, but not to this extent.
Diehl brings a great amount of humanity to Franz, particularly in a climactic conversation where he expresses the doubts that accompany his resolve. But so much of the back half of the film is spent with musings and monotony to no additive effect. Comparisons to Scorsese’s Silence are prevalent, but frankly A Hidden Life has a shred of that film’s theological vision, supplanting it with more abstract moral and philosophical musings.
Although faced with temptation, Franz’s outlook does not really grow or evolve from the moment we meet him until the final seconds of his life. His back-and-forth musings with Franziska do little to add depth to the spiritual contemplations, although their little white lies told through letters add beautiful depth to their love.
Franziska is stuck at home, taking care of the farm without Franz or any help — abandoned by her community and forced to raise three daughters on her own while her husband rots for his convictions. The film ends with the quote “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.” It may not be Malick’s intention, but how is Franziska, who suffered far more while caring for so many, not the hidden life the poem eloquently describes? The film never raises the question, but creates the space to ponder it.
Malick’s aesthetic choices also go a long way in conveying Franz’s love for Franziska, and hers for him. There is purity to those moments, a truthful depiction of soft, everyday love and duty to the people for whom you care. Truly, it feels like the next few hours, similar to other Passion stories like The Passion of Joan of Arc or The Passion of the Christ, are needless. They are redundant. Rather than feeling meaningful, these sequences drive the same points home that Malick establishes early on, ad infinitum.
Malick speaks through a painter whom Franz meets that states, “Someday, I will paint a true Christ.” In what is the best scene of the movie, Franz listens to the painter lament that nobody wants to understand the truth of Christ’s life; of the violence inherent in the human soul that led him to be crucified. Every generation thinks they are different, that they would have honored him, and so they commission murals that depict a beautiful and decadent past. Malick wants to tell a story set in recent times that allows him to explore moral lessons, to explore the idea of Christ in a secular fashion. To get to the heart of humanity’s capacity for evil. It sometimes gets lost in its own ambitions.
I am genuinely moved by those who struggle to reconcile their faith in the face of overwhelming odds, and to live good and compassionate lives. The sequences of Franz and Franziska facing everyday challenges, ideological and otherwise, feel so much more well-developed than the back half of the movie. Their theological discussions in town are richer than those they write in the letters that structure the film through to its denouement.
I loved the moments in the village, with Franz actively resisting the changes around him. He’s horrified by thoughts of war and by the idea of pledging himself to Hitler and a cause in which he does not believe. The contemporary parallels aren’t difficult to understand. The question, even to secular audiences, is whether you’re willing to sign away your convictions for your own family’s safety. Would they even be safe? How do you square this with your faith and your practical realities? It’s a question that still haunted me despite the prison portion of the movie feeling overlong and one-note.
Frankly, A Hidden Life is a film that has stuck with me. I loved and loathed the experience of watching it in equal measure. It is an experience. It will play very well to fans of Malick’s aesthetic. Despite my misgivings about the film’s construction, I have had trouble shaking it.