Being a former Christian, I have apathy at best and often antipathy for most artistic explorations of faith. No matter how well-made or well-intentioned they may be, there is a fundamental disconnect with me over the very premise they are working from, perhaps even a philosophical disjunction over the basic ontology of … well, existence. The films of Terrence Malick are one major exception. His work makes me feel the way church never did, capturing an essence of the divine through aesthetic sublimity. In a landscape of Christian films dominated by fake persecution porn, his new feature A Hidden Life is a bracing reminder of how cinema can wrestle intelligently and passionately with spirituality.
Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian farmer who became a conscientious objector during World War II and refused to swear the oath of loyalty to Hitler; he was ultimately executed by the Nazis. The Catholic Church has since beatified him. He is the kind of figure many Christians and Christian films would profess to identify with. Look at how Dinesh D’Souza’s conservative agitprop documentary Death of a Nation despicably invokes the story of Sophie Scholl as part of its argument that actually fascism is a left-wing phenomenon. Part of the mechanism of fascism is to convince an empowered group that they are in fact embattled and endangered. That true history is deployed this way in the service of fighting progress is perverse.
But Jägerstätter’s faith was not the fulcrum of the state cracking down on him; rather, it was the staunchly political act his convictions pushed him toward. His refusal to fight for the Nazis was the logical outgrowth of his religious beliefs, and yet despite the fact that these were beliefs allegedly held by the majority of the population, only a small minority took the sort of action he did. That contradiction (a more strident observer might call it hypocrisy, couldn’t be me) is at the core of A Hidden Life, which fleshes out the turmoil which plays out both within Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and between him and his community in the isolated village of Sankt Radegund. Malick teases out how faith can play into the hands of fascism, whether through eager collaborators (such as the leadership of Radegund) or passive acquiescence (like a bishop who advises Jägerstätter to keep his head down). That this happens mostly wordlessly, through physical gestures in lieu of lengthy debate, does not diminish the film’s intellectual heft.
The film’s vision of a better faith (Edenic, even) is nearly as compelling. It reclaims iconography that is often the cornerstone of much fascist rhetoric: the home and hearth. It revels in Jägerstätter’s domestic life with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters. Malick is one of the best directors at portraying the sheer joy of physical affection — not just in tender embraces and play, but also in the way Franz and Franziska thresh a field of wheat together, swinging scythes in concert. The filmmaker is best-known, though, for capturing natural beauty like no one else, and that is on full display here, with Jörg Widmer’s camera drinking in the majesty of the fields and mountains. And then, whenever the Nazis or their influence rear their heads, it is an incursion, a disruption. Fascists always contend that they seek to maintain the purity of a homeland, but A Hidden Life is having none of that, portraying theirs as an unnatural presence. This is, of course, self-evident information, but filmmakers tend to favor more brusque techniques to depict this (in the case of Nazis, movies too often love to revel in their sadism, titillating viewers with outrage). There is of course violence here, but contextualized within that wider social milieu.
A Hidden Life is a rare film dealing with Nazi atrocity in that it doesn’t incorporate any of the groups well-known for being targeted by them (Jews, Roma, queer people, communists, Poles, the disabled, and so on). Rather than present a victim story formula that’s by now familiar to moviegoers (particularly as Oscar bait), it has a thornier concern. It’s about someone who could very well have lived his life unmolested, if only he had conformed to society around him as it grew more and more evil, but who instead asserted himself and was killed for it. That is unsettling, because it implicates all those of us who now live in relative comfort but don’t act against rising fascism in our own time. It is an even more pointed confrontation for any conservative Christian who may watch it. They like to imagine they’d be Corrie ten Boom; Malick contends that they’d more likely be Jägerstätter’s jailer.
In one scene, Franz talks to a church artist who is guilt-ridden for his (small) kowtowing to the Nazis. “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo on his head,” he says. He longs to someday paint “the true Christ,” the one who suffered and died rather than accept society as it was. A Hidden Life is a damning indictment of comfortable religion. Rather than luxuriate in the perceived glory of martyrdom like a good Christian film might, it presents Franz Jägerstätter simply as one decent voice in a cacophony of wickedness.
A Hidden Life is now playing in select theaters.