Premiering this Friday, American filmmaker Terrence Malick’s meditative film A Hidden Life ought to be on everyone’s “to watch” list this winter.
Set during the early 1940s in the mountainous Austrian countryside, A Hidden Life follows the path that farmer Franz Jägerstätter’s spiritual convictions laid out for him as he refused to pledge an oath of loyalty to Hitler, a rejection of horrifying wrongdoing and popular nationalism. His refusal to participate in an unjust campaign rips him away from his village and his family, locking him away in a prison cell. The trajectory of this decision is pieced together from letters that Jägerstätter wrote from prison to his wife Franziska — the film is based on a true story — with parts of the minimal script drawn directly from their correspondence to one another.
A devout Catholic and an anti-Nazi, Jägerstätter was an ordinary man who was forced to make the extraordinary decision to risk losing everything he loved in order to follow the only moral code he knew. Over 60 years after his death, the Catholic church declared him a martyr, but for many of those years Jägerstätter’s sacrifice was unknown to the public and even reviled by his village. As such, the title of A Hidden Life turns on a quote by British writer George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans): “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.”
To be clear, by no means was Jägerstätter an activist. At no point does he do anything that was effectively designed to change the course of history for the Jewish people being persecuted by Hitler; he simply refuses, over and over again, to be on the wrong side of history. This is precisely the argument that many bring to his attention, pointing out that his refusing to pledge an oath to Hitler isn’t going to change anything. It’s certainly not going to save lives or end the war.
In fact, even sympathetic spiritual leaders urge him to consider that the only people who will really feel the effect of his ineffectual protest are his wife and children, who will have to survive on their farm without him. He is accused by villagers swept up in the tide of nationalism as being prideful, holier-than-thou, and a traitor to the fatherland, wondering aloud if Jägerstätter thinks he’s smarter than them, better than them, knows more than them. When he is in prison, their anger is directed toward his wife and children who bear the social consequences of his convictions. Administrators along the way plead with him to pledge the oath to Hitler, promising that he will be free to return home to his beloved family if he simply signs his name on a document, at times even sympathizing with his moral outrage but unable to square that with its practically unreasonable cost.
The film does not exactly call upon its audience to act; more than anything, it raises the possibility of deep, personal contemplation. “This is more about a private and silent choice,” explained actor August Diehl to IndieWire, who played Jägerstätter in the film, “not something visible, not outstanding, he’s not a hero. It’s a personal and spiritual choice.” In true Malick fashion, stylistically speaking, the movie fills an expansive three hours with sweeping shots of idyllic landscapes, with long cuts and little dialogue, leaving audience members plenty of time to consider the strength of their own moral compass for acts that very well may be unhistoric. A writer for the Washington Post wondered, “Why do these rare individuals make the choices they do at such a high price to themselves or their loved ones? Why do they follow causes that directly contradict their own material interests? Why do they reject the comfortable path?”
Diehl shared his own questions with IndieWire, in the context of the wrongdoings and nationalism of today. “If it’s about our society, it’s about how a person who says ‘no’ is getting more rare. We are all jumping on one train, and have to go with it.” He suggested that a film like this can give us clarity. “Why is it possible that everyone jumps on a train going in the wrong direction?” Whether it’s about migrant detention or climate change or the mistreatment of factory workers or the impeachment of an immoral president, at what point do we all relent and stop fighting the tides of injustice? How far are we willing to go before we stop saying “no?”
A Hidden Life opens in select theaters this evening, and everywhere on Friday.