A mesmerizing, true story overcomes Terrence Malick’s weaker impulses in ‘A Hidden Life’

Illustration of scene from A Hidden Life
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Is there morality in performing an action that in and of itself provides no positive impact on the world? What about an action that sees only a negative impact? Is there nobility or a greater purpose in committing yourself to a higher ideal, to what is right, at the expense of what is worldly? 

These questions lie at the core of existential auteur Terrence Malick’s new film “A Hidden Life.” Set deep in the secluded Austrian Alps, “A Hidden Life” tells the quietly epic true story of an Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter’s (August Diehl) World War II odyssey. If you’ve never heard the name before, don’t kick yourself — his anonymity is at the crux of the film. A loving husband to his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner), a father and a devout Christian, in 1939 Franz’s idealistic utopia is undercut by the intrusion of fascism and Nazi recruiting efforts in his small village. Soon, Franz finds his life defined by a seemingly nihilistically irrelevant choice: pledge allegiance to Hitler or follow his conscience and his faith to an anonymous execution. 

Franz chose the guillotine. 

Yet he chose it not for any worldly practicality. He cared not for valor. There was no altering Germany’s path, no hope of even protecting the innocent. Franz had the opportunity to serve innocuously in a hospital, but he chose the guillotine simply because bowing to Hitler would be reprehensible; as a Christian man, he knew he’d be betraying his faith. It is this act that Malick sees as essential to the salvation of humanity, being willing to sacrifice everything to gain nothing. Because while these acts appear meaningless on their own, it is through collective inaction that men like Hitler are born, and through the faceless, hidden acts of resistance that the world is saved. 

The film’s argument for Franz is breathtaking, yet it’s surprising that this philosophical vision is so affecting, considering that the cinematic experience itself is often less than pleasant. Of course, the mileage the average viewer will get out of Malick’s metaphysical overindulgence will vary based on how they perceive his other films. Yet unlike his best works, such as “The Tree of Life,” “A Hidden Life” gives in to Malick’s weakest impulses as a filmmaker; the result is a film that’s often an existential struggle in and of itself to get through. Malick’s reliance on an overwrought, poetic jumble of unnervingly focused close-ups (created with the help of director of photography Jörg Widmer), distant philosophical ramblings and wide shots of captivating scenery (with the occasional nod toward narrative direction) are all meant to conjure existentially affecting pathos. Yet the end product is an abstract maze that’s not only difficult to navigate but also to enter, resulting in an overlong and emotionally distant hagiography.

But as a whole, the vision of “A Hidden Life” still resonates. It shouldn’t; a film that tempts you to “briefly rest your eyelidsfor long stretches should not carry the aura of an emotionally poignant epic. Nor is Malick’s philosophically pure faith in Franz totally infallible. Upon seeing the pain put upon Franz’s family and the fruitlessness of his actions, Malick’s argument becomes somewhat suspect. Yet the weight of Franz’s morally conflicted but profound sacrifice and the idealism it infers offer an ethereal gut punch. Buoyed by religious and earthly metaphors that ring repetitively throughout the three-hour run time yet live and breathe in your head by the climax, Malick’s vision for the magnitude of Franz’s worth culminates in the film’s heart-stopping closing moment, a devastating blow that reverberates long after James Newton Howard’s stunning operatic score has quieted. 

“A Hidden Life” is often a slog of a movie that gets lost in the blinding heavens it seeks to encapsulate, but its unabashedly idealistic vision of humanity is a mesmerizing flicker of optimism. The film posits that even if there is evil, there will always be those who will fall on a sword to build the smallest foundation for heaven on earth. 

Contact David Newman at [email protected].