A Hidden Life (2020)

Directed by Terrence Malick; Written by Terrence Malick

Do the right thing. 

Many don’t walk the talk. Promises made on lofty Sunday often don’t stand up to pragmatic Monday, and the consequences of the white lifestyle lies we tell are thankfully mostly benign and come at a cost to only ourselves. But what about our moral stances? To call out what we believe to be wrong is easy when we have nothing on the line, but it’s an entirely different proposition when your convictions could cost you everything and possibly ruin those closest to you.

High in the Austrian mountains, Franz and Fani Jägerstätter have carved out a piece of Eden for themselves. Farmers, husband and wife, and parents to three young girls, Malick’s now patented lithe cinematography captures love, the creation of a family, domestic bliss. As Fani says, “we lived above the clouds”. In a rapidly industrializing world, this village life feels otherworldly and near impossible in the context of the turmoil to come. But come it does, with the ominous whirr of machines in the sky. 

Franz is called to war, but confronted with the exploits committed in the name of the Fatherland, he refuses to serve and swear loyalty to Hitler. So, after showing us the possibility of paradise, Malick asks: would you give it all up by standing up for what you believe is right?

Because the arguments are all laid before Franz. The consequences for his wife and children are immediate and terrible: they lose a father, husband and provider and stand to be ostracized by a tight-knit community. Then there’s the supposed futility of one man’s dissent as his protest rings faint in the ears of politicians and out of sight to the public as he withers away in a jail cell. Does this meager end justify the calamitous means?

Franz’ steadfast conviction puts him in stark contrast to Malick’s other leading men undergoing their own particular crises of the soul, be it Christian Bale’s Hollywood screenwriter in Knight of Cups, hurtling through meaningless affairs and a life of excess, or Sean Penn’s architect in Tree of Life, whose character struggles with the emotional legacy of his parents. Malick’s grappling with grief, malaise, depression – these powerful emotions whose manifestations can be nebulous – was done in his particular style of a floating lens, internal conversations, swimming faces and sweeping nature shots, and these could leave you feeling similarly adrift and lost in the swell of things.  It made for a more understated experience that was less concerned with what was profound to the conscious mind and instead explored the tensions underneath, like forgoing the spectacle of crashing waves to instead explore the visceral power of the current beneath. This isn’t to say A Hidden Life is superficial compared to the other Malick films this decade, but the more structured narrative and clear conflict at hand makes it a more immediately powerful experience that moves you with bracing cinematography, heartrending performances, and a deeply humane sincerity where Malick’s favored techniques elevates and illuminates an already potent story. 

A beautiful film about courage and conviction, and the inner light we all carry and must fight to protect, A Hidden Life is another gem by Malick and perhaps the film that best succeeds in communicating his preoccupations while remaining true to his artistic sensibilities. It’s timeless art released at a time in history where it’s more relevant than ever.   

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