“A Hidden Life” (2019), director Terrence Malick’s latest foray into questions of the human spirit and conscience, ends with a quote on a black screen, written by the pseudonymous English writer George Eliot: “…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.” Though Eliot may have meant something different with this quote — seeing as she went by a male pen name in order to hide her female identity, amongst other reasons — these last lines of her 1871 work “Middlemarch” hypothetically fit well with Malick’s version of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to sign on to the global domination aspirations of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
The main test of whether or not one will find purpose in this film rests solely on their opinion of Malick’s presentation of Franz Jägerstätter, a very real, noble man, and his “hidden life.” Are we supposed to care about Jägerstätter’s life or are we supposed to care about all the hidden lives? One might argue that we, as human beings with morals and the ability to empathize, should care about both, seeing as Jägerstätter’s life is one of them. While fair, this argument conflicts with the method of “A Hidden Life” in presenting Jägerstätter’s life, which Malick may very well have intended to have us care about.
Malick makes it clear that Jägerstätter is not a hero. He is portrayed as merely a principled, devout man who objects to evil and sticks by this objection, even in the face of certain death. Nothing more. Malick is therefore aware that Jägerstätter’s story is a study of the inner conflicts one has when given the chance to choose between right and wrong, and said choice has life-or-death implications. Yet, stubbornly, Malick does not utilize the open canvas of Jägerstätter’s mind to study the character who could have been used as an exemplar (rather than a vessel) for other hidden lives throughout human history. This could be due to the limitations of the real Franz Jägerstätter; he could have been just as one-note as portrayed. It could also be due to Malick’s preference of using external expression to study people, as opposed to internal expression. The latter is more likely, seeing as the film focuses on one aspect of Jägerstätter’s reasoning toward being a conscientious objector — the religious aspect. Yet, the film still obfuscates the exact way in which his Catholicism played into his decision. It is ambiguous as to whether Jägerstätter being aware of Nazi war crimes on the Eastern Front is even mentioned in the film, and if it is, then it’s done in a rather easy-to-miss way.
“A Hidden Life” has all the makings to be a masterpiece. Malick upholds the same level of setting-induced wonder that has been the expectation since his first films, “Badlands” (1973) and “Days of Heaven” (1978), but this time with a heavy lean toward Eastern European, blue-tinted pastures and mountains rather than the American, yellow-orange prairies of the aforementioned films. The acting of German August Diehl and Austrian Valerie Pachner — who respectively play Franz Jägerstätter and his wife Franziska — is as good as anyone else’s this year. The orchestral score pops in and out at all the right moments. The pacing is impressive, never making the three hour film feel like a slog. There is a good variety of shots; the best of which are awe-inspiring, the worst of which are still interesting. The way in which Malick has his German and Austrian characters speak in their native languages and English only when a line cannot be deciphered through the emotions and body language of the speaker is quite innovative. Yet, the combination of these successes in cinematic technique never amounts to an incredible film.
A film about a hidden life does not require its life of focus to be studied only at a surface level. It does not need to treat its subject as if they were merely a vessel. A film can feasibly delve into the deepest caverns of any person’s mind throughout history, studying their specific thoughts, and still expect the audience to derive profound and, more importantly, translatable knowledge from it. With all of the close-up shots of Franz Jägerstätter in this film, one would have hoped Malick would have gone a bit further into his head.
Malick wants us to understand what Eliot had to say about hidden lives. But by doing all that it can to distance us from the study of Franz Jägerstätter, “A Hidden Life” keeps the spectacularity of these lives still hidden from us.
“A Hidden Life” opens in theaters on Dec. 13.