“It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.”
Once in a long while, a film is produced that provides its audience a genuine spiritual experience that directly confronts one’s soul. Terrence Malick’s masterful film, “A Hidden Life,” explores the true story of the courageous Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector in World War II who refused to swear loyalty to Hitler. Set in the magnificent Austrian Alps, the film takes us into the real-life home of the protagonist’s family, in addition to actual settings from Franz’s life. Malick’s profoundly palpable commitment to authenticity makes “A Hidden Life” a symphony of moments so real that the line between artifice and reality was often blurred. Owen Gleiberman captured the film’s essence when he said that it was “cinema at its mightiest and holiest. A movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses.” As with all great artistic achievements, you may find yourself positively altered by the experience.
Malick’s admirable devotion to authenticity, paired with immersive acting performances, brings the experience of Franz and his family to life and gives viewers the privilege of engaging with, and learning from, their soul-wrenching story. Few films provide us this catalyst for consciousness expansion, not to mention soaring natural beauty and James Newton Howard’s transcendent musical score. It is no wonder that Malick’s latest masterpiece, on par with previous films “A Thin Red Line” and “The Tree of Life,” received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival when it premiered in 2019. Do not dismay at missing it in theaters, since this three-hour film may be best enjoyed with an intermission and moments of contemplative pause. The deliberately slow pace of Malick’s films is meant to maximize meaning and understanding rather than to mindlessly entertain. It is not a movie that relaxes us, but rather a work of art that challenges and expands us.
Malick’s infamous filmmaking style lends itself to creating scenes that are as genuine as possible. Actors are often caught off guard and are unrestrained by strictly scripted plans. They are therefore free to allow meaningful, spontaneous moments to emerge in the pursuit of finding the line where the boundaries between acting and true human feeling break down and become as irrelevant as possible. His wide lens camera moves sweepingly amongst the actors and gives the viewer the sense that they are immersed in these moments, not just watching them.
Masterful performances by August Diehl (Franz Jägerstätter) and Valerie Pachner (Fani Jägerstätter) provide a spectacular glimpse into the married couple’s love, life and devotion. Farm work done the real way with scythes, and other tools that are true to the time period, breathe life into their daily lives, work and their connection to their land and home. The family moments they share are beautiful and words from real-life letters between them provide insight into their rare love and dedication to each other even during extremely stressful circumstances. Malick immerses his actors in their role and the result is a film that channels the past and brings it alive to be seen, felt and understood.
The miraculous majesty of nature is a common thread throughout Malick’s films. “A Hidden Life” has no shortage of epic scenery, sublime sounds, and shots that capture the mighty power of nature, weather and the ever-changing, unfolding of life. This perennial beauty anchors Malick’s films in the mysterious forces of nature and the transcendent source from which life emerges. The sun never ceases to shine and the mountains continue to tower above us despite whatever trouble and darkness humanity faces in each temporary experience. Franz imagines “a green more beautiful than previous years” even as he is faced with persecution and the depths of human suffering. Malick’s devotion to capturing natural beauty and hinting at the transcendent illuminates Franz’s own spiritual stand and search.
Early in the film, Franz is asked, “Don’t they know evil when they see it?” This question reverberates throughout the movie as many of the performances beautifully capture each character’s confusion, doubt and internal struggle. The film is a meditation on right and wrong rather than a clear ideological statement. It challenges religious devotees to question what it means to actually walk the path; to cultivate one’s own righteousness rather than to worship others. What if that involves going against the grain of one’s own friends, family and neighbors? We witness the distress of Franz’s alienated wife Fani as she is harassed by members of her community. What does one do under such immense social pressure? When reflecting on moments like this, we see how easy it is for large swaths of humanity to fall to engineered social pressure and the ideological path of least resistance. An enlightening and distressing revelation to say the least.
With the benefit of hindsight, we tend to think we would act as brave souls from history acted. However, this in-depth look at Franz Jägerstätter’s lonely struggle paints a very different picture. It seems that a minority of souls have the courage to stand up for their own innermost truth when their status quo and survival is threatened. This is deeply nutritious food for thought in a time where mass censorship, social engineering, and psychological campaigns of control are being waged across the world. We need all the inspiration we can get.
“A Hidden Life” is a film that confronts its viewers leaving them rattled and in tears. August Diehl’s journey as Franz is an allegory for the soul’s transformative path through darkness to transcendence. It asks us what transcends the human experience and what is true freedom? What does one do in the face of evil? In an interview about the film, August Diehl puts it simply, “it is about saying NO. We don’t have to create a big revolution, sometimes we have to just say no.” Seeing how Franz’s story has reverberated through time, it is a beautiful reminder that the actions of each individual do hold considerable power.
Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at WholySelf.com