Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz
It is easy to forget that not everyone who lives in a totalitarian regime likes their totalitarian regime. It’s not mass hysteria that takes over the people’s minds in a place overrun by despots and theocracies. People of conscience still retain their values and morals independent of social pressures. How they choose to act given those pressures is the heart of the matter. In this case, it is also the heart of the film A Hidden Life by writer-director Terrence Malick. A Hidden Life is the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) whose pleasant life farming in the hills of Austria is ruined by the demand that he comply with compulsory service to the Third Reich. He finds the insistence that he swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler untenable, refuses and is jailed for his trouble. From there on out, things go poorly for our hero Jägerstätter. Based on a true story, A Hidden Life is an ambitious film for several reasons, not the least of which is its epic 174-minute length. First, there are Nazis. Films with Nazis bring with them a pile of baggage that is as unpleasant as it is constraining. Filmgoers already have their mind made up when they see a swastika and unless it ends with a face-melting opening of the Ark of the Covenant, most will be disappointed. That brings up the second issue. In America, people have been expressing pro-Nazi views in increasing numbers. This is a film that finds itself squarely in a time when authoritarianism is on the rise around the globe. Malick is clearly offering a counterpoint with the message that there are really not some very fine people on both sides. Nazis are horrible people and their portrayal in this film demonstrates that with gusto. But let’s not linger over the Nazis, lets instead wander back to Austrian Alps where farmer Franz and his beautiful young family eke out a living growing potatoes and wheat on the outskirts of a bucolic Austrian village. Malick is known for his painterly visions of large landscapes and small moments. In A Hidden Life, you can smell the dirt on the characters’ hands and feel their muscles groan at the plow. The hills are alive, not with music this time, but with the hard, rewarding life of simple family farming in a community. Malick takes his time establishing what rural life was like for the people of this village and the Jägerstätter family. It makes it just that much more heartbreaking when the Nazis enter the scene to ruin it for everybody, starting with Jägerstätter. It should be noted that Malick makes fantastic use of language in the film. Flowing between English and German, the language carries the emotion in the angry scenes of both villagers and prison guards. Unless the filmgoer understands German, they are forced to absorb the emotional content and rage of the scenes without the distraction of what precisely is being said. It is a very powerful bit of moviemaking, giving the viewer the time and space to come up with their own words, in their own language. The message of A Hidden Life is not an uncommon one in film: A man stands up for what he believes in, despite the costs. The private exchange between Jägerstätter and his judge sums up the situation nicely. “Do we have a right to do this?” the judge asks. “Do I have a right not to?” asks Jägerstätter. It is the root of passivity and a question worth repeated consideration in films. Why does one have to participate in others’ actions? Where does our responsibility for the common good end?Taking on a project of this scale is well within the scope of Malick, who rendered such romantic period pieces as Badlands and Days of Heaven. The romance in A Hidden Life is found in Jägerstätter’s love of life. It is evident, but often overshadowed by the brutality he is put through. It would be a shame to view this film as simply a political statement dropped off on Hollywood’s doorstep as a cautionary tale in a turbulent time without also taking in the nearly three hours of screen time that Malick has laid out as a portrait of a man, a family, a community and a nation dealing with stressors beyond their control. A Hidden Life paints a picture of times that are hard, but reminds us that solace, and even beauty, can be found in our own convictions.