Review: A Hidden Life

What’s immediately striking about Terrence Malick’s newest movie is that its premise does most of the work for him. Malick is known for imprinting a characteristic visual style and spiritual tone on all his stories, regardless of their provenance or theme, thus creating his own theme, which usually centers on the nexus between the natural world and God. A Hidden Life is about the Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), who refused to fight for Adolf Hitler because of his religious beliefs. The first half of the film takes place high in the Austrian Alps, a milieu where nature is king and God’s work is taken for granted. Jagerstatter’s life is so simple that he doesn’t even need the Catholic Church to guide his spirituality (“the Church tells you so…”), and he comes off as something of an oddity in the community, a man of deep faith without need for dogma to explain how to channel that faith. He sees God in the trees and the fields and the animals and in his love for his wife, Franzi (Valerie Pachner), who gives him three children. As with many such passages in Malick’s films, this idyll is sometimes overwrought, an excess of beautiful scenes beautifully staged and shot. Some will no doubt find it tiring, but it makes Jagerstatter’s idealism whole and uncomplicated, and that’s important because it determines the choices he makes, ones that very few of us ever even contemplate.

Eventually, the Anschluss comes and Jagerstatter is sent off for basic training, which he tolerates with native stoicism. Afterwards, he returns to his village, which has been altered terribly by the scourge of forced patriotism. As Jagerstatter awaits his draft notice, he becomes more than just the village eccentric. His conscience is seen as a danger to the community, and he and his family are ostracized. He is open about his objection to the war, which in and of itself isn’t the real problem. Though conscientious objectors were not permitted in the German army, they could get assigned to non-combat duty. Jagerstatter’s problem is that he won’t pledge loyalty to Hitler, who he sees as the anti-Christ, even if he doesn’t use that exact term. When his notice comes the village is almost relieved to get rid of him, while his wife is frantic: Is your spiritual purity worth the burden you are putting on your family?

The final third, which details Jagerstatter’s stint in prison, is almost all about internals—the insides of jail cells and prison yards, the deep recesses of Jagerstatter’s strangely placid mind. Malick’s intense use of shadows brings out the slippery slope that the lawyers, judges (one of whom is played by Bruno Ganz in his last film appearance), and clergymen who try to get him to tell a white lie to save himself have to navigate in their own lives of self-deceit. What’s almost miraculous about A Hidden Life is that Jagerstatter doesn’t come across as a saint. He’s actually the most patient man you will ever meet; a purposeful, perfect fulfillment of Malick’s vision of the spiritual being as leading man.

In English and German. Opens Feb. 21 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Shinjuku Cine Qualite (03-3352-5645).

A Hidden Life home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Corporation

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