Based on true events, Terrence Malick's sweeping period drama "A Hidden Life" tells the story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector during World War II who refused to swear loyalty to Hitler or fight for the Nazis.
Malick's works tend to have a metaphysical bent, concerned with the natural world and humankind's place within it. "A Hidden Life" continues the search for meaning and questioning of religion that has been a through line of Malick's films over the years.
From a storytelling standpoint, it's also the director's most accessible film in years, especially when set against the filmmaker's comparatively experimental and esoteric recent films like "Knight of Cups" and "Song of Songs." There's more narrative drive here than either of those films, though "A Hidden Life" is no less philosophically-minded, grappling with issues of faith and morals, conviction and sacrifice.
While the rest of the villagers in the small mountain village of Sankt Radegund buy into the nationalistic rhetoric espoused by those in power, Franz (played by August Diehl) stands by his convictions. And he suffers for it, facing constant pressure and harassment from the townspeople -- most persistently their xenophobic mayor. Franz is called up to serve, but when he still refuses to swear loyalty, he's imprisoned and faced with the threat of execution for treason. In jail he's routinely humiliated and abused by guards intent on breaking him.
Much of the story is told through the letters Franz and his wife Franziska, nicknamed "Fani" (Valerie Pachner), wrote to one another when they were separated. Even after they're apart, the film spends as much time with Fani as it does with Franz. And while Malick shows us the personal costs Franz faces for his beliefs, the film considers the morality of his actions bringing further suffering on Fani and their three young daughters, who haven't necessarily signed on for the abuse he receives. Fani finds herself scorned by the villagers, and her daughters taunted by their peers.
Malick's films tend to be, let's call it "deliberately paced," and "A Hidden Life" is no different. There's been plenty of commentary this awards season about the three-and-a-half-hour runtime of Martin Scorsese's gangster epic "The Irishman," and less talk about this film (clocking in at three hours with far less in the way of plot and incident). Even if the length does feel indulgent, I was always held rapt. It helps to have the lovely performances of Diehl and Pachner to latch onto. They're two performers with such open, expressive faces that we sense rich inner lives even without being provided the details. So we're immediately drawn into their character's lives and invested in their relationship.
Cinematographer JörgWidmer matches the grandiosity of the film's ideas with images that inspire the same hushed awe with which Malick seems to regard all of creation. Widmer shoots with extreme wide-angle lenses, giving the images a warped perspective, as though echoing this out-of-whack world that would punish a good man while raising up evil. "You can't change the world, the world's stronger," Fani cautions her husband. And to reinforce the idea, characters are frequently dwarfed by the breathtaking landscapes that surround them. Also there's a bit less of Malick's trademark montages and murmuring voiceover while characters twirl about in wheat fields.
Throughout the film Franz is repeatedly dragged before various figures of authority to be interrogated about what purpose he feels there is in his stubborn defiance. They're all quick to tell Franz that his actions don't have the power to stop the war, Hitler won't hear of his protests, the public at large will never know his name.
And so the story grows larger implications, about obeying one's conscience, holding true to one's convictions and values while knowing there's likely to be no reward beyond the hope that in some small way -- one you might not ever see -- it will matter.
It does offer a somewhat beatific portrait of Franz, and I occasionally wished that we got a better sense of the man beyond his beliefs. But it seems we were never going to get an in-depth character study from current-era Malick. As a filmmaker, he tends more toward grand, sweeping abstractions and archetypes than nuanced character studies.
Though "A Hidden Life" didn't feel the Academy's love when Oscar nominations were announced Monday, it deserves to find an audience. It's an absorbing and often moving testament to the actions of ordinary people when confronted with the evils of the world, and Malick subtly connects his film's crisis with concerns of the present day. His heartfelt message offers a somber reminder that it's often the unsung acts of resistance that may very well save us all.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.