A Hidden Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is a masterpiece. The cast and crew have come together to create one of the strongest faith-based films of the decade. Based on a true story, this 2019 film follows the final quietly resounding act of Franz Jägerstätter’s life—a life full of love, devotion, and immense strength and resolve. Jägerstätter is caught at a crossroads: swear loyalty to Hitler and massacre the innocent for a war he doesn’t believe in, or stand against absolute evil on behalf of his faith and convictions, with the knowledge that the latter choice will certainly lead to his death. Through its command of beautiful scenery, the story’s heavy content, and the use of biblical imagery, A Hidden Life shows us that even a small act can have the capacity to make great change.
A Hidden Life depicts suffering, but it has equal amounts of joy. August Diehl (as Franz Jägerstätter) and Valerie Pachner (as his wife Fani) convey the joys of a simple life, of working hard, passionately enjoying the companionship of loved ones, and finding hope in the midst of a turbulent time. Pachner and Diehl’s talents shine in both bright and difficult situations, making their performances brilliant and grounded. They brought these historical figures to life through raw emotion that will strike a chord with the modern viewer. Pachner offers a particularly nuanced performance of psychomachia as Fani struggles to balance wanting to support her husband in doing what he believes is right and questioning his decisions. Karl Markovics, as the mayor of Jägerstätter’s small town, is a scene-stealer. His absent-minded fervor and zeal is sure to remind the viewer of similar modern-day politicians, making him an applicable character for our time. These performances are all the more enhanced by their settings, as some scenes were filmed in the actual locations where the real-life figures spent their days.
Jörg Widmer’s cinematography in A Hidden Life is as biblical as the story it is telling. The village where the Jägerstätters live at the beginning of the film looks and feels as if it were the Garden of Eden: green and mountainous, with a wide-ranging valley that is resplendent, pure, and seemingly never-ending. It is both intimate as well as vast—yet it proves to be restrictive and isolating when the rest of the townsfolk turn against Jägerstätter and his family. Scenes in prison are dark when Jägerstätter is troubled and at times doubtful, but have glimmers of purgatorial light when he recalls his rock and fortress of hope, Christ. While the audience isn’t shown the fire and brimstone of Hell, they both witness and experience it alongside Jägerstätter.
Terrence Malick’s writing in combination with August Diehl’s performance shows a pensive and studied understanding of the compassion Christians believe Jesus Christ wanted people to extend to one another, as well as the joyous, selfless, and empathetic love in the sharing of our collective humanity. Throughout the film, a viewer can feel this in every action Jägerstätter takes from his relationship with his wife and children to his treatment of those that beat and revile him. These moments of externally focused, self-denying love establish Jägerstätter as a Christ figure. Though he is living through one of the most brutal regimes in history, he knows that through acts of love, this darkness can crumble.
Jägerstätter is battling both the worldly and spiritual devil at the same time and is ridiculed by those who say they believe in the same Christ he does. They represent the proverbial Pharisees and the people who called out to crucify Christ almost 2,000 years before. They look upon the icons and depictions of Christ’s suffering and say that they would never condemn him, but they are an ouroboros to their own beliefs, they are admirers, not followers of Christ’s teachings. Malick juxtaposes Jägerstätter’s Christ-like sacrifice with the stages of Jesus’ life story through imagery. The audience is able to see Christ’s story through Jägerstätter even if they aren’t familiar with the source. We see Christ’s temptation through the conversations with Jägerstätter’s lawyer; his betrayal through Jägerstätter’s friend, the mayor; his persecution through the physical beatings Jägerstätter receives from the Nazis; as well as the ostracizing of his family, his trial, and the washing of his own Pilate’s hands, his execution, and his rebirth.
A Hidden Life and its subject Franz Jägerstätter offer an example to those who see the light in the darkness. Viewers will see Jägerstätter and his strength through Christ and realize no matter how small or quiet their actions are perceived to be, they can resonate for generations to come.