A Hidden Life review: Terrence Malick stages a battle between good and evil in an Austrian hamlet

August Diehl plays a man on trial after refusing to fight for Hitler in Malick’s typically sensuous historical reverie, which evokes a harmonious way of life destroyed by the onset of war.

Richard Combs

A Hidden Life (2018)

A Hidden Life – as Terrence Malick has taught us to expect – is rooted in very solid considerations, images of the physical earth and of the here and now. But it’s a physical realm that at any moment could be elevated to the spiritual.

“I thought that we could build our nest high up – fly away like birds to the mountains,” declares farmer Franz Jägerstätter’s opening narration over swooping images of mountain pastures and plunging waterfalls, a world that really is above – or mingled with – the clouds. Jägerstätter may be a historical character, but his commentary puts him directly in line with those Malick protagonists who delightedly participate in the everyday, and whose real story is their relation to their environment.

This is St Radegund in upper Austria, a secure little hamlet before the film drops us into a different forest, the thronged banners and martial insignia of the Nazi legions. The Anschluss of Austria with Germany has happened, and if St Radegund represents innocence, even a kind of Eden, that is about to end.

A Hidden Life’s original title was apparently just Radegund, which not only has the resonance of slightly exotic place names but also plants the film firmly in another territory, that of Malick’s familiar philosophical source, Martin Heidegger. He thought of human existence as a kind of “dwelling”, which this film very concretely imagines between earth and sky.

Franz is called up for basic training in the Wehrmacht, which he undergoes compliantly, only beginning to look a little doubtful during bayonet training. When recalled for active duty, Franz refuses to deliver the required oath of loyalty to Hitler, a line of quiet resistance that eventually lands him in prison and on trial for his life before a military tribunal. Most descriptions of the film have called Franz a conscientious objector, but his resistance is never as clearly articulated as that, merely a reaction away from what he sees as ”evil”.

Jägerstätter (August Diehl) shares the narration with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) as they recount their first meeting: “I remember that motorcycle,” she says of his arrival in Radegund, a ride later reprised, as dream or memory, on the brink of Franz’s death. Or is it an otherworldly extension of his life, like the circus that drops into Days of Heaven (1978)? Other village voices are incorporated, as one would expect, but Franz and Fani remain the focus, their lives in the village, in the family, and as a sexual couple bound up with each other.

These scenes could be taken as a kind of documentary of sensuous evocation, from the sounds of planting, scything, gathering, to the light streaming in through barns and kitchens. It’s a documentary only missing the kinds of detail we might expect: Fani is seen baking trays of bread, but it is unclear how they might figure, beyond the family, in the village economy.

These scenes are recording a wholly different world from the one captured in the early newsreels of parading troops and bombed-out cities, although the link between them will turn out to be Franz. And if he is to be the link between these mutually incompatible versions of reality, then it is only appropriate that the link should be so mysterious, a retreat into an interior world, a world of faith and spirit.

If Franz in his quiet stubbornness might be characterised as Christ-like, the forces ranged against him also have a certain blankness – loud and violent to be sure, but not articulated in terms of ideology. What Franz has on his side is the natural world – conjured in images of earth, air, fire and water – opposed by a regime that, for all its sound and fury, is characterised by an emptiness. It’s there in the final moments alone with the tribunal president (Bruno Ganz, in his final role), who seems crushed by his inability to save Franz, or to persuade him to save himself.

 

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