A Hidden Life, the 2019 film written and directed by Terence Malick, is a masterpiece. The crew and cast have come together to create one of the strongest faith-based films released. The film follows the final quietly resounding act of Franz Jägerstätter’s life: a life full of love, devotion, and immense strength and resolve. Franz is caught at a crossroads: swear loyalty to Hitler and massacre the innocent for a war he doesn’t believe in, or resist the absolute evil on behalf of his faith and convictions, also resisting the pressure of those around him in an effort to keep his village from sinking to the craven brutality of Nazism – with the knowledge that the latter choice will certainly lead to his death. Through its command of beautiful scenery, the true story’s heavy content, and the use of biblical imagery, A Hidden Life shows us that even an act that is perceived as small to others can have the capacity to make great change.
As much suffering as A Hidden Life depicts, it has its 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 is able to balance the weight of Fani’s struggle to understand what her husband feels he must do while at the same time questioning it, and then learning to accept it, a vastly nuanced and complicated progression of psychomachia she must portray to give life to the woman that lived through it in such a short time. Pachner and Diehl’s talents shine in both happy and difficult situations, making their performances brilliant and grounded; they brought these historical figures back to life through those choices, with raw emotion and evident internal struggle that will strike a chord with the modern viewer. Karl Markovics as the mayor of Saint Radegund, Jägerstätter’s town, is a scene stealer and by far the closest character we see to an example of how people are behaving currently within politics or in religious circles: with absent-minded fervor and zeal making the town’s mayor 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 the real-life figures would have walked, and contemplated their action or inaction.
The cinematography by Jörg Widmer in A Hidden Life is as biblical as the story it is telling. The village in which the Jägerstätter live at the beginning of the film looks and feels as if it was 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 Franz and his family. Scenes in prison are dark, but still have some glimmers of purgatorial light where Franz is troubled and at times doubtful, but that doubt fades with 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 Franz who later is to be laid down in green pastures by the film’s closing, showing his place in paradise.
Terrence Malick’s writing in combination with August Diehl’s performance shows a pensive and studied understanding of the love Christians believe Jesus Christ wanted people to have for one another through the life and deeds of Jägerstätter, as well as the joyous, selfless, and empathetic love in the sharing of our collective humanity. Throughout the film, a viewer can feel this love 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 Jagerstatter as a christlike figure. Though he is living through one of the most brutal regimes in history, he knows that through acts of love, this regime can crumble.
Malick also delves into the idea of the comfortable Christ, the one that we often see given more attention to today. The one that we see in televangelists like Joel Osteen, preaching that everything is good and about positivity and staying where we feel safe, where we are never challenged by the hard and truthful part of what Christ asks of his people –that they help others no matter how it makes them look,, or how that help is received. Jägerstätteris 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: the one they see depictions of and hear about in church, the same one they say they want to emulate, the one that teaches that we reap what we sow, but they represent the proverbial pharisees and the people who called out to crucify Christ almost 2,000 years before. 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 offers an example to those who see the light in the darkness, when evil clouds around us and when men are too weak to recognize that the strength they see outwardly is truly an inner evil. They will see Franz and his strength through Christ and realize no matter how small or quiet they are perceived to be, they can resonate the loudest for generations to come, when the evil they have faced is long gone.