Terrence Malick has directed “A Hidden Life,” a very enjoyable contemplation on World War II, on freedom, on good and evil, and on God. His film asks, where was God during WWII?
Radegund, a beautiful village in the Austrian Alps. Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector, refuses to fight for the Nazis or pledge allegiance to them. Franz has a farm in these beautiful mountains that he tends to with his wife, Franziska (the incredible Valerie Pachner). Their life is idyllic. They have animals, they toil the land (and it doesn’t look easy) and have three daughters.
It’s 1939. Franz gets called to fight at the front and returns home. When he gets called a second time, he refuses and is arrested. He serves his pre-trial sentence and is moved to Berlin where he will eventually be tried.
Based on real-life events, the story of “A Hidden Life” would’ve never come to light had it not been for the work done by Gordon Zahn, an American, who discovered letters written between Franz and his wife Franziska after his arrest for desertion. The letter were then published as Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings from Prison.
Some noteworthy Malickian tropes: the wide-angle wandering viewpoint that so many people discovered in “Tree of life.” It distorts scenes, as if they were shown from the viewpoint of something other the actors (God, perhaps?) The soundtrack, chockfull of soaring arias. Non-diegetic sound: the characters’ inner-voice is heard regularly and combines with music to create pathos. God, religiosity, a burning need to believe.
What gives Franz the gumption to resist signing the oath of allegiance to Hitler, and Franziska, his wife, the ability to support him is their faith. The film’s notion of resistance to fascism feels particularly relevant at this moment in time, with people like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in power. Religious conviction in “Hidden Life” is extolled not only as virtue but also as force for good. And yet, “Hidden life” also has its part of mystery, just like the belief in God is based on not knowing what’s what. During a scene shot in the prison yard where Franz is awaiting trial, one of the inmates tells him, “the sun shines on good and evil the same.”
One of the most moving moments in “Hidden Life” came toward the end, with a scene in which appears the military court judge, in the person of none other than Bruno Ganz. His Judge Lueben is the one who sentences Franz to death. The cancer that killed Ganz must’ve been in the advanced stages during the shooting of “A hidden life.” He looks diminished, and yet, his familiar voice reached right into my heart, even though he was playing a Nazi judge.
Terrence Malick has directed an exceptional film. With its near three hour-length, it remains to be seen whether “The Hidden Life” will do as well at the box office as “Tree of life.”