A man worth anything has only one thing to consider: whether he is acting rightly or wrongly.

A Hidden Life ( 2019 )

  |   Jan. 26, 2020

 Terrence Malick's career has followed a more unusual path than most, including a twenty year hiatus between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. His more recent movies have taken on a more experimental style, abandoning a traditional narrative to focus on the spiritual journey of its characters. While "The Tree of Life" was well received, winning the Palmes D'Or at Cannes, each follow up has veered further and further away from the mainstream, and being more poorly received. In what he admits is a repentance of sort, he returns to a more structured narrative with "A Hidden Life", which tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who defied Hitler and paid the ultimate price.

Franz and his wife Fani live out an idyllic live as farmers in an Austrian valley in the 1940s, untouched by conflict or suffering, and surrounded by ceaseless beauty. But the impending war will touch every part of this world, and so it closes in on them gradually. Franz knows the war is wrong, feeling it with every fibre of his being. He sees the mask fall off his neighbours, who denounce other races and express a desire for revenge over justice. When he refuses to contribute to the war effort, the only one in the valley to do so,  they start to turn on the race traitor within their midst. He is eventually drafted for military service, but will not concede his soul by swearing allegiance to the Antichrist. He does not know everything, but he knows that the leaders of his country are wrong, that the leaders of his Church are weak, and that he cannot fight this war.

A Hidden Life does not abandon the more distinctive style of Mallick's recent movies, sweeping majestically through the life and times of Franz, often conveying time and plot loosely, as much through what remains unsaid as what is said. In a more conventional telling, Franz may have seemed like a zealot, a man sacrificing everything for a protest with no meaning. But Malick's world is composed of feelings, of senses, of spiritual transcendence, and in this world, there is no choice for Franz but to do what he knows to be right. While all others are racked with fear and doubt, he thinks and acts without hesitation. His conviction gives him the strength to bear his cross to the last. Mallick's telling of Franz' story may still frustrate those not familiar with his work, as may the lengthy runtime, but it is  utterly captivating, both emotionally uplifting and devastating, and a very welcome return to form from one of the masters of cinema.

The title comes from George Elliot's novel Middlemarch, which pays tribute to those who lived faithfully Hidden Lives that make the world a better place, but are left untold. The real Franz Jägerstätter was beatified by the Church in 2007, as a recognition of not just his struggle, but the struggle of those others whose tales remained untold.