Rich imagery illuminates story of wartime conscience, morality

A Hidden Life

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl star in the film ‘A Hidden Life.’ Photos Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The title of Terrence Malick’s moving anti-Nazi drama “A Hidden Life” comes from a quote from author 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 the unvisited tombs.” 

The film focuses on one such hidden life, that of the real-life Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler and serve in his army despite the cost.

“A Hidden Life” is one of Malick’s strongest, more striking films, a return to form after several lesser efforts in recent years. Like “Tree of Life,” the film is visually stunning, even transcendent, with beautiful, sweeping Alpine vistas and carefully composed shots of rural domestic life that rival Dutch paintings. Also like that film, it tells its story through images and feelings more than dialogue, with the loosest of narrative structure. 

Much of the story takes place in a remote mountain valley where Franz’s little farm clings to the mountainside. He and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), are raising their two girls in a rural idyll. Malick uses the isolated mountain farm and village and its lovely natural environment to embrace that sense of other-worldliness.

Valerie Pachner

Valerie Pachner in ‘A Hidden Life,’ which is directed by Terrence Malick.

Franz and his family are so removed from the war that they are hardly touched by it. He could easily have shut it out, and the film’s depiction of his love for his wife, children and life on this little farm show us he has every reason to turn away from the larger world. But he is unable to convince himself that what Hitler is doing in Germany and elsewhere doesn’t affect him. Franz’s conscience and moral values compel him to stand up for what is right. 

Franz is disturbed when Hitler quietly invades his country, welcomed by the Austrian government. Although Franz is not Jewish, he is strongly opposed to Hitler’s policies. When he is called to do basic training for military service in the Austrian army, he briefly thinks about not going but decides otherwise out of a sense of patriotism, as long as he is not fighting for the Nazis and they do not ask him to swear loyalty to Hitler. They don’t, at first, but things change as the war progresses. 

After training, Franz returns home and resumes his previous blissful life. As isolated as the village is, unsettling events occur shortly after the Nazis take over. 

A local leader praises Hitler’s policies, while another neighbor talks nervously about fearing that the Germans will soon come for him. Malick typically does not specifically say that the fearful neighbor is Jewish, and even the local leader does not mention Hitler by name. But the implication seems clear. 

In another unsettling scene, Franz comes across a displaced person on the roadside who is selling the few possessions he has left.  

“A Hidden Life” is a powerful statement in praise of unsung heroes who engage in acts of resistance and stand up for principles. The beauty of the natural world and his family’s blissful life underscores what Franz is leaving behind by defying the Nazis. 

Malick excels in giving us soaring, dizzying, gorgeous images of  summer Alpine landscapes covered in wildflowers or intensely green grasses. The images are so overwhelming one almost can smell the rich ground, the delicate flowers. The domestic scenes are warm, moving, with painterly composition.  By contrast, scenes showing an army barracks are stark and gray.  

Malick succeeds in using a visual approach to tell this compelling, human story with an underlying message of conscience. 

As Franz grapples with his decision, he consults with others, including a fellow soldier and friend played by Matthias Schoenaerts, and a judge, played by the late Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor who portrayed Hitler in “Downfall.” The acting is as superb as the photography and adds immensely to the emotional weight of the film. 

“A Hidden Life” is one of Malick’s best films, a compelling, beautifully shot tale of someone doing what is right despite the risk.

'A Hidden Life' opens Friday, Dec. 20 at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theater.