Terrence Malick’s latest film “A Hidden Life” is a meditative drama film which calmly and austerely explores its religious/spiritual themes via the real life of one ordinary man who chose to stick to his belief despite being aware of the devastating outcome of his choice. Although it may initially feel quite daunting to you due to its slow narrative pacing and long running time (174 minutes), it will soon engage and interest you via its dazzling visual poem of life, faith, and humanity, and it surely shows us Malick at his finest since “The Tree of Life” (2011).
That real-life figure in question is Franz Jägerstätter, a plain Austrian farmer who is played by German actor August Diehl in the film. As told to us at the beginning of the movie, many Austrian men were drafted to the Nazi German army during the World War II, and their first requirement was to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hilter and the Third Reich, but Jägerstätter adamantly refused to do that. He was eventually put on a military trial and then sentenced to death in 1943, and he was executed several months later.
Full of calm pastoral mood all over the screen, the early part of the film phlegmatically depicts the daily life of Jägerstätter and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) in their mountain village St. Radegund around the late 1930s. Although it seems that the war has already begun, things are still quiet and peaceful in the village while they and other village residents work and live as usual, and we also get a series of glimpses into their happy married life with their young daughters. Although it is implied that there was a time when he was young and wild, Jägerstätter has been a benign dude with deep religious devotion probably because of his wife’s warm and gentle influence on him, and we sometimes see him doing some maintenance jobs on a local Catholic church for free.
When he and many other able-bodied men in the village are later demanded to participate in the basic military training under the Nazi German army, Jägerstätter is not so bothered by that. Although he has not been comfortable with what has been going on in his country and Germany, it looks like the war will be soon over, and he has no problem at all with going through the basic military training while having some good time with his fellow trainees including the one played by Franz Rogowski, who, as many of you know, would be more well-known to us not long after the shooting of the film in 2016 (The post-production of the film took no less than three years due to Malick’s extensive editing process with his editors Rehman Nizar, Ali Joe Gleason, and Sebastian Jones, by the way).
Anyway, once France is fallen shortly after the German invasion in 1940, Jägerstätter and other trainees are sent back to their hometown, and his wife and children are certainly glad to see him returning without any problem, but then the situation is subsequently changed again as the war is continued during next three years. As having more doubts on whether his country is on the right side of the war, Jägerstätter becomes more conflicted than before, and he is certainly well aware of that he has to make a certain big choice if he is finally drafted again to the Nazi German army.
He naturally attempts to look for any solution for his ongoing matter of faith and life, but, of course, nobody around him can give that to him. There are a few folks who sympathize with him as sharing their growing concerns on the outside world, but most of village people including the mayor do not want any problem with authorities out there, and it does not take much for Jägerstätter to be regarded by others as an outcast or a traitor. A local priest seems to understand and empathize with Jägerstätter’s dilemma, but he indirectly warns to Jägerstätter on getting into a serious trouble for that. Not long after that, Jägerstätter is allowed to meet a bishop by played by late Michael Nyqvist for getting any counsel, but the bishop does not say anything helpful to Jägerstätter mainly because of the unstable current status of his church under the Nazi Germany regime.
As Jägerstätter keeps musing on what he should do, life still goes on around him as before, and Malick and his cinematographer Jörg Widmer often give us stunning visual moments to behold. As freely roving from one moment to another as if it were reflecting the stream of consciousness inside its hero’s mind as wells as that of some others including his wife, Widmer’s camera vividly captures not only small intimate personal moments but also awe-inspiring sights of nature on the screen, and the resulting mix of these sublime moments are further elevated by James Newton Howard’s gorgeous score and a number of notable pieces of classic music in the soundtrack including Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St Matthew Passion, BWV 244, Kommt, ihr Töchter”.
During the second half of the movie, the mood becomes gloomier once Jägerstätter lets himself get arrested and then sent to a prison in Germany, but Malick firmly maintains the meditative tone of his movie as before – even when his hero inevitably arrives at the ultimate test of his belief. While Diehl humbly holds the center as usual, Valerie Pachner ably carries the other part of the story as a wife who also comes to face her own difficulties on the outside, and Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, and late Bruno Ganz are also solid in their small supporting roles.
On the whole, “A Hidden Life”, whose very title is incidentally derived from George Eliot’s novel “Middlemarch” as shown from the quote appearing at the end of the film, is an unforgettable experience in many aspects, and it is a shame that I could not watch this superlative work on the big screen for appreciating more of its ideas and visuals. In short, Malick is back in his element after the disappointment of “Knight of Cups” (2015) and “Song to Song” (2017), and I hope he will continue to advance more at least during next several years.