REVIEW: A Hidden Life tests our patience, but still leaves us with outstanding performances, images and music

A Hidden Life is directed by Terence Malick. Starring August Diehl as Franz Jaegerstaetter and Valerie Pachner as his wife Fani.

SPOILER ALERT

“Will we ever learn what this has been all about?” mourns the wife of a jailed Nazi resister. She’s survived almost as many privations as her husband, who faces execution from a Nazi tribunal. A Hidden Life is based on the true story of martyred Austrian farmer, Franz Jaegerstaetter, whose defiance of the Nazis wrought havoc in the lives of his family and his tiny mountain community. 

Life in the rural Austrian farming town of Radegund is idyllic, its inhabitants turning to the seasons, attending to the tolling church bell, planting and harvesting the crops, raising their children. But when the shadow of the Nazi risings in 1939 enforce a loyalty oath from every Austrian citizen, Franz Jaegerstaetter refuses. He and his wife soon suffer taunts and harassment from their neighbors. Franz is arrested and deported to a prison. After a year of incarceration, he is brought before a tribunal where he is given one last chance to recant and save his life. But not even a visit from his wife and the pleas of the village priest change his mind. Silently, he goes to his final judgment.

The truth of the moral imperative that drives poor Franz away from his village and his family and toward the execution dock remains hidden within him. At only one point does he admit, “I am unable to do what I think is wrong.” Well, good for him, we think. Fine. But what about the recriminations and reprisals his stance visits upon his family and community? And what about his supportive wife, Fani, who now must survive a hardscrabble existence on her own? Many viewers may be forgiven for questioning the selfish virtue that only brings ruin upon Franz and his wife.

But this is a film by Terence Malick, who makes movies about people who move to their own inner dictates, regardless of the consequences. The same might be said of Malick’s determination to make movies with an eccentric visual style, which layers the action and the dialogue in deft sweeps, like the swing of the farmer’s scythe; where the narrative pursues a sometimes erratic course, like the track of the plow; where the landscape of brilliant skies, lowering clouds, verdant meadows overwhelms the characters and reduces their dialogue to terse exchanges and broken sentences. Too often, the characters and the storyline just drift, each locked in its own inscrutable trance. Many viewers, including this one, balk at times, pressing the movie to just get on with it.  

Malick belongs in the august company of the French master, Robert Bresson, whose protagonists also keep their faiths, their beliefs, their obsessions, locked tightly within them.  The ethical constraints of Malick’s and Bresson’s worlds are marked by a tightly circumscribed moral compass. And those of us who have long since learned that survival means compromise find such an idealist, airless void so difficult to understand that we may greet it with hostility.  Whatever has moved him or his characters to sacrifice their lives—not to mention the film’s narrative logic—for some unknowable truths remains hidden.

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Is there a meaning to it all? Is there a meaning to the chaos of the Nazi Holocaust that crushes the lives of millions, like Franz and Fani? What right do we have even to ask the question? How dare we think that anything we do or say will matter in the scheme of things? Perhaps because we ask such existential questions at all is entirely to the point. It’s all very cosmic and, at the same time, very elementary. On a much more prosaic level, even Humphrey Bogart mumbled questions like that to Ingrid Bergman at the end of Casablanca.

Meanwhile, the movie, which goes on and on for almost three hours, tests our patience and frustrates our own needs for answers. Whatever god resides in the skies above or in the fields below remains silent. And yet… 

A Hidden Life leaves us in the end with outstanding performances by the two lead actors, a reprise of the gorgeous, majestic images of earth and sky that will endure long past the petty travails of Franz and Fani and a music track, consisting of music by Handel, Dvorak and Part. Count on Terence Malick to honor the music of our great composers, past and present.

Can we at least take away from A Hidden Life this scrap of consolation in the words of novelist George Eliot appended at the end? — “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.” To that we might add words written a century before by Thomas Gray:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

The short and simple annals of the Poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth, e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

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