For over 10 years at Ripple Effects around this time, I’ve a Christmas post entitled Reading the Season. That’s when I post a book or collection of poetry that I find relevant for Christmas. This year I’ve something different. It’s a film that could offer some quietude among the cacophony of the season.
I first saw A Hidden Life at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It’s now showing in selective cities.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refused to take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler to fight for the Nazis in World War II, for he saw Hitler’s war unjust and evil.
The title alludes to George Eliot’s ending of Middlemarch:
…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
A quest for spiritual meaning is the signature of the reclusive director’s works. They are often expressed in whispered voiceovers from the characters, revealing their doubts and questions, anguish and insights.
Days of Heaven (1978) establishes Malick’s aesthetic style of using natural light to shoot his films, every frame exudes cinematic poetry. The Thin Red Line (1998) begins his signature whispering voiceovers to express inner thoughts and spiritual quests. But it’s The Tree of Life (2011) that makes such whispers monumental as Malick situates the microcosm of a Texan family within the cosmos, and asks questions of the Creator the problem of pain and death, the struggle with human nature, with love and hate, and despite all human failings, the presence of grace.
Since The Tree of Life, Malick has produced several ‘misses’, films that are not well received as they are elliptical and experimental but visionary no less. To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) all point to one common quest: in the materialistic world of the rich and famous, what makes life meaningful? And, can true love be found?
A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick back to his form in a more traditional style of filmmaking, and more explicitly spiritual as he tells the story of a faithful, historic figure, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter of St. Radegund, a village in Upper Austria. Before Germany’s ‘annexation’ (Anschluss) of his country, family life is blissful and easy for Franz. He farms the land among natural vistas, stays rooted in a close-knit community, happily fathers three young daughters, and is deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). The arrival of a conscription letter in 1943 changes everything.
Franz knows he cannot join Hitler’s military, but the refusal to do so means certain death and the risk of endangering his family. He struggles hard to deal with the dilemma and seeks guidance from his Catholic church, but his priest tells him patriotism is what’s demanded of him. His village folks ostracize him; the mayor urges him to comply with Hitler’s demand, for one traitor among them can endanger them all. But Franz stands his ground even with the consequence of execution, a stance reminiscent of the Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died under Nazis hands for refusing to let Hitler’s doctrine to supplant his church.
In this way, A Hidden Life offers an opposite stance different from Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel. Here we have a courageous conscientious objector willing to suffer the loss of everything and the risk of harm to his family and kinsfolks in defying a ruthless ruler. A Hidden Life is a real-life testimonial of a believer while in the face of persecution, still refuses to step on the Nazi fumie to renounce his faith.
After incarcerated in the German military prison near Linz then transferred to Berlin to await trial, Franz is allowed to write one letter to Fani every month. The love the couple share in the film has its basis on these poignant letters which have since been compiled and published by Orbis Books. Franz’s absence from home brings Fani back-breaking hardships on top of social ostracizing. Her mother and sister come to live with her to offer whatever support they can give.
Capturing mainly natural light for his filming, Malick contrasts the idyllic family life in the beauty of the natural landscape of Franz’s home setting with the harshness of his imprisoned existence. What’s more tortuous though is his internal struggle. While in prison, his captor Captain Herder (Matthias Schoenaerts) says to him: “What purpose does your defiance serve? No one knows about you.” Yet Franz is convinced that his action isn’t to please others or to glorify himself, but to do what’s right in the eyes of his God. Franz’s own hidden spiritual life empowers him to stay strong.
In his trial, again he is being challenged: “Will anyone outside this court hear you? No one will be changed.” Yet he says nothing in his own defence, an allusion to the One who had stood trial in front of a ruler and said nothing in the face of death.
In a voiceover we hear these inner thoughts, Franz’s words to Fani:
“Time will come when we’ll know what all this is for, and why we live.”
There are plenty of quiet moments, long takes and slow pacing for viewers to think and ponder. The 174 minutes of screen time offers an opportune respite from the hustle and bustle of the Season, a quietude to evaluate, if you will, now that we’re at the end of another decade and in a time of tumultuous change.
The soul-stirring music is another reason to sit down in the theatre and quietly let the story unfold. Film composer James Newton Howard has created a full orchestral score complementing the cinematography, not only in capturing the beauty of the vistas but in his own words: “… to focus on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters—writing music to reflect their story.” Listen for the solo violin representing the sentiments of Franz and Fani, masterfully played by the Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes.
What’s hidden could be more precious, like treasure in jars of clay. And these words came to mind as I give A Hidden Life further thoughts:
… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Reading the Season Posts:
For my review of The Tree of Life and Silence, click on the links embedded in the titles.