With A Hidden Life, the Christian God that Terrence Malick has ordained as omnipotent in so many of his films seems, for the first time, on the verge of defeat. To Malick, the hate and devastation of the Third Reich during World War II brought not only death to the mortal body, but threatened annihilating the moral soul. No less than this weighs on Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who risks imprisonment, and worse, by refusing to fight for Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s.
Malick makes Diehl’s conscientious objector the human center of A Hidden Life, and the bearer of its two colossal forms of internal torment: a waning fealty to country and the loss of faith in God. Franz’s path from forceful rejection of his nation’s shifting values to his questioning of the church isn’t only A Hidden Life’s most compelling through line, but also one of the few substantive deviations from Malick’s signature thematic fixations.
Franz’s crisis of faith otherwise plays out in a formal register that’s of a piece with Malick’s prior work. This is evident right away in the film’s first section, set mostly in Radegund, a small Austrian village surrounded by rolling hills and flowing streams, and throughout which the camera lingers on scythes gliding through cornfields, braying farm animals, afternoon strolls down rough-trod dirt pathways, and silken blankets of fog over acres of forest.
The imagery is predictably gorgeous, but these sequences don’t offer the sense of progression that the overtures of Malick’s films often do. The Tree of Life spirits us through the birth of a family, its children coming of age, and a world-altering tragedy, all in its first moments. In A Hidden Life, we see, via flashback, how Franz met his wife, Franzi (Valerie Pachner), with usual Malickian hushed and reverent narration accompanying the scene of the couple’s first encounter and instant infatuation. Malick then launches into a string of scenes that show Franz and Franzi in the throes of domestic bliss, but the sweeping romance of these moments grows repetitive, and for maybe the first time, the director’s form verges on the monotonous.
Malick’s working method in recent years is quicker and less precise than it used to be, an approach that’s yielded profound rewards, as most of the films are set in contemporary times and depict a fast-paced world lacking in human contact. However, A Hidden Life, being Malick’s first historical epic in over a decade, could have greatly benefited from the longer gestation period that a film like The New World was allowed.
A Hidden Life eventually moves past its unhurried opening, as Franz is thrust from his home in the foothills of Radegund, first to a German military base after he’s drafted, and later to Berlin, where he’s imprisoned and condemned to death. In these later sections, the film sees Malick working with more plot than in almost any other film he’s made, which is one change that does at least open A Hidden Life up to some unexpectedly impactful dramatic moments. Unfortunately, the need to attend to matters of plot distracts Malick from summoning the sort of grace notes that typically accumulate with such phenomenal ease across his films.
A Hidden Life is a deeply interiorized movie—a war film about the battle between one man’s mind, heart, and soul—that also functions on a more macro level. At various points, Malick cuts from the personal narrative to black-and-white archival footage, which features Berlin during the war, steam-powered trains, and Hitler in a promo reel playing with a child. Franz himself also facilitates broader implications about the world around him, and its inability to comprehend the damage caused by unmitigated hate and intolerance, through the reverberating effects of his oppression: As society ostracizes him, the intensity of his moral conviction—the refusal to comply with the German’s Oath of the Leader—is projected outward, imprinted on spaces he occupies, and on the people whom he influences.
Malick stresses this idea at various points in A Hidden Life, especially in a scene that’s bound to cause controversy: Bruno Ganz, as a high-ranking Nazi officer, conducts a one-on-one meeting with the condemned Franz, trying to understand why he believes his cause is a just one. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with humanizing an officer of the Third Reich—an earnest extension of Malick’s boundless commitment to humanism—the scene contrives moments of such earnest reflection that it verges on maudlin.
The film’s strongest section is its final stretch, which encompasses some of Malick’s most ambitious, probing, philosophical ideas since The Tree of Life. It’s also here where Malick adds another wrenching layer to Franz’s struggle, as the man must weigh the moral imperative of refusing to play a part in Germany’s conquest against the responsibilities that he will not be able to perform as a husband and father if he’s put to death. Malick renders Franz’s final months and days through the lens of the evocative, semi-surrealist Christian imagery that he employed in The Tree of Life, but that imagery—such as a door left ajar, revealing only darkness beyond—carries darker connotations here, as Franz faces his impending execution.
The first line that we hear in A Hidden Life is a telling one: “We thought we could make our nest high up in the trees.” If Malick’s art had ever offered one essential means through which to understand it, it’s that with the loftiest of beliefs and ambitions comes the greatest risk. The filmmaker’s work has often teetered on the brink of folly, and here it builds on a foundation that isn’t as sturdy as it used to be. But Malick still dares to push his moral inquiry further than he ever has before. A Hidden Life means to seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current. It’s a quietly radical, if problematic, effort, as Malick’s baseline faith in humanity becomes uncomfortable when it resonates on the faces of soldiers throughout a Nazi war camp. But Malick owns that hire-wire risk, and when his filmmaking matches that level of commitment, as it often does here, he reaps the reward.