Savina Petkova on Terrence Malick’s ‘A Hidden Life’ (2019)
How to be at peace with one’s own transience and insignificance in the cosmic scheme of history? Terrence Malick, the poet of spiritual martyrdom, has put the resonance of societal trauma into a glorious celebration of words and images. Leave it to him and his unique sensibility to explore what individuates a person, as well as what relates people to people. In A Hidden Life, his philosophical approach coagulates the transition from personal pain and perseverance within the larger framework of Western civilisation’s anxiety following a tumultuous 20th century. Set in the early 1940s, the film reconfigures and refracts the true-life story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl at his career-best), a small-town farmer who ardently refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler or join the Austrian armed forces.
“I remember…”, Fanny (Valerie Pachner) whispers, sending shivers through the black screen. She alludes to a time of bliss – long gone. As with many Malick films, it all begins with a fall from grace, or a creation that has resulted from a collision with the past, as the future presses onto it. St. Radegund, 1939 is where the story begins, wide-angle shots of fluffy clouds hover over spiky mountain peaks and merge their contrasted blue tones with verdant green forests. A picturesque village removed from society, Radegund’s only touch with history is a plane engine throttling over its peaceful inhabitants. Moist with rain and mist, the pine trees give shelter to unconditional love — Franz and Fanny are shown intertwined in both flashbacks and present time. Their playfulness orchestrates close-ups following their hide-and-seek games and the first steps of their children, while Jörg Widmer’s camera (who also worked with Lubezki on Malick’s 2011 Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life) maintains low angles for its protagonist, turning them into (moldable) effigies of gentleness.
In comparison to the emotional hindrances in To The Wonder (2012) or the spiritual fall in Knight of Cups (2015), A Hidden Life, rather than conjured out of the protagonists’ inner lives, poses a threat from outside. Being historically specific, Malick’s new film proposes an authentic, contextual rethinking of the nature of evil in relation to the senselessness of war and violence. In the narrative, World War II is understood through used footage (spot Leni Riefenstahl), the German soldiers’ resentment, the Third Reich’s bureaucratic inefficiency (no doubt a gesture to Hannah Arendt’s work on the “banality of evil”), and most of all, the verbal cliches of Nazism that have sunk their teeth deep into Europe’s flesh. Gradually, Franz’s act of passive resistance results in the ostracisation of his wife and children, while the villagers call his choice of mind “madness”, “pride”, and “sin”.
The joyous touch shared between the couple is soon replaced by tear-wiping and silence, as the clouds across the Austrian sky grow darker. The lighting in the film dims from basking sunshine to brisk twilight, which takes the colour out of Fanny’s sparkly ocean blue eyes. “Nothing touches my soul”; such a confession could be uttered by any of Malick’s protagonist across his body of work. Yet, for Franz, it does not pertain to lack of faith, nor lack of love. If anything, his character is a humble martyr that has an abundance of willpower and virtue, and Diehl taps into the anguish of being misunderstood by a whole epoch.
Nature is the imminent witness that connects 1940s Radegund to the present day. Malick celebrates the Austrian wilderness in robust wide shots, which stand still, while the world of the people is constantly spinning and alternating from high to low. The focus on a natural phenomenon such as fire symbolises nature’s rage against the status-quo in a manner more expressive than any other scream in the film, while the repetitive rituals of harvest, tucking hay, or running wheat through the windmill never seem to exhaust their vital potential. The film is bursting with life, even in its grim depictions of German prison with the chilling inscription “Speaking forbidden” on its walls, or in the expression of Fanny and her sister maintaining the agrarian cosmos without the man of the house.
An ode to life in truth and a paean to resistance against evil, A Hidden Life feels theologically and philosophically dense but delivers its ambivalent tones with sensuous levity – both visually and conceptually. The equal distribution of monologue, dialogue, and epistolary narration favours togetherness rather than a stream-of-consciousness solitary meditation. Aside from being a bridging device between the saint-protagonist and his suffering loved ones, this composition of voices testifies to a responsible and mindful treatment of the Western post-war trauma. Malick has proven again to be a director of forgiveness, here more than ever, a director of empathy and absolution, without even a hint of preaching or dogma.
A church-painter confesses to Franz that his painting absolves him from misery, “I paint all this suffering, so I don’t suffer myself. We create sympathy. One day maybe I will have the courage to paint a real Jesus.” In this sentiment, Malick strives for sublime communication with the cogent knowledge that it might not reach anyone rationally. Pondering over the questions of belonging and the individual role in the grand narrative of history, A Hidden Life lifts the veil behind the universal agony which is also humanity’s most discernible blessing: free will, agency, and truthfulness, all of them playing a crucial role in love and politics alike. In his directorial and philosophical touch, Terrence Malick is not timely, but timeless.
Screened as part of the 2019 Festival de Cannes and in cinemas wide 17 January 2020