Terrence Malick has wrestled with themes of suffering for decades, and in the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, he has found his perfect beatific subject. A conscientious objector in World War II, Franz (August Diehl) is happily married and raising young children in an Alpine village in Austria when the Nazis invade and annex his homeland (he is the only person in his village to vote against the Anschluss). Conscripted into the German army, Franz must take the so-called “Hitler oath”, in which all members of the German army, even conscripted foreign nationals, pledge fealty to Hitler and the Third Reich. Franz, a deeply religious man, refuses to pledge the oath, and attempts to act as a conscientious objector in the war. But unlike in World War I, in which objectors could take positions as field medics, objectors now are arrested and tried for, essentially, treason against Germany. Franz never wavers in his conviction and meets a predictably grim end.
A Hidden Life is a beautiful, lyrical film that recalls Malick’s best works, falling somewhere between The Thin Red Line and A New World. This is not a battle movie—besides one trip to boot camp, Franz never sees action. And it’s not really about how the war machine destroys all before it, like A New World. But it shares DNA with those films, especially in the way that Life shows the ruinous nature of cowardice and conformity amidst conflict. Franz is staunchly against the Nazis from the moment they show up. He is never persuaded, nor even wavers in his conviction that the Nazis represent a pure moral bad. Of course, we know that, and Terrence Malick knows that, but within Franz’s world, the Nazis represent a promise of change. Franz’s village is comprised mainly of subsistence farmers and a few drunks—life is hard. Hitler comes in promising more and better, and many people—most people—are swayed.
Malick does not dwell on the political machinations of the Nazi Party, we have the History Channel for that. But he does show how the mere appearance of strength is enough to corrupt weak convictions, and how hard it truly is to stand against your neighbors. As Franz’s rebellion goes on, the townspeople begin turning on him, mocking his children, refusing to buy produce from his farm, and eventually harassing his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner). Franz has no illusions about the risk he is taking—unlike most everyone around him, he is always aware of the threat posed by the Nazis—but even still, he remains certain in his belief that supporting Hitler, even through an essentially forced statement, is wrong.
I don’t think Malick is trying to be political here, or, not too political; A Hidden Life is much more about religious suffering and moral fortitude, but there is simply no possible way a film about a guy who refuses to kowtow to the Nazis doesn’t read political in 2019. Franz is almost comically certain Hitler is evil right away (the real Franz Jägerstätter was openly and staunchly anti-Nazi from the jump, so that is accurate), and the Nazis we meet are not imposing, frightening masterminds They’re complete morons, playground bullies and weak bureaucrats riding the coattails of true evil all the way to middle management. Of course they hate Franz, he possesses a strength they can barely fathom.
A Hidden Life is a staggering work from a master filmmaker. If you’re not a fan of Malick’s long takes, displaced dialogue, and ponderous pacing, Life won’t change your mind. But within the scope of what Malick does, Life is a near-perfect expression of his career-long examination of human suffering. It’s a beautiful film, thoughtful and moving, and works almost like a cinematic reflection pool. A Hidden Life is something to look at while pondering the human condition, the purpose of suffering, the importance of rebellion in the face of tyranny, and it is a reminder that as long as one person remains steadfast, evil can never truly conquer.