A renewed conviction drives Terrence Malick’s camera in A Hidden Life, his tone poem based on the true account of an Austrian farmer who refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler. Unlike his last two films, Song to Song and Knight of Cups, which dithered in a metaphysical malaise, this thrums with a spiritual vigor. The camera floats through fields, as you’d expect, but it also prowls prisons. There’s an overwhelming urgency to its vision of holding onto faith in the face of evil.
In this, A Hidden Life mirrors the conviction of its main character, Franz (August Diehl). Alongside his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), Franz has established an almost idyllic life outside a small village in a pristine Austrian valley. One of the first images captures the difficult job of wielding a scythe in a field of wheat, but the majestic mountain range in the background seems to bless the toil as holy work. When the fluid editing ushers us from the sight of Franz and Fani’s young children twirling about to the image of a chicken bounding out of a doorway, it evokes a similar harmony. Humanity and nature living as intended; another Malick Eden.
Yet as we know from Malick’s previous films—The Thin Red Line, Badlands, and his masterpiece, The Tree of Life—paradise will soon be lost. In A Hidden Life, literal storm clouds roll into the valley, the thunder echoed in the fearful, anti-immigrant rhetoric taking hold of the villagers. Then Franz is called to report for military duty. He turns to the church, whose spire can be seen in the background of so many of the movie’s frames, but is told by a bishop to obey “his duty to the fatherland.” His conscience—no, his faith—tells him otherwise.
Though based on actual events and ripe with contemporary parables (especially for American Christians), A Hidden Life is less a piece of political agitprop than it is a historical fable. Franz and Fani aren’t specific, acutely detailed characters as much as they are representative figures, stand-ins for anyone who has had their convictions challenged, at great risk. And so, while it follows a more linear narrative than anything Malick has done since 1978’s Days of Heaven, A Hidden Life still drifts about more than it delineates. It’s not a story as much as it is a series of musical movements made up of impressionistic images: Franz and Fani’s early bliss, the gathering threat on their valley, his eventual refusal and imprisonment, their separation, his execution.
Helping Malick conduct are a few new key collaborators. Working for the first time with him is composer James Newton Howard, whose score is rooted in a low earthiness, which supports a wandering string section that soars about looking for more. Taking over for Emmanuel Lubezki is cinematographer Jörg Widmer, who previously served on most of Malick’s other films as a camera operator and maintains his swooning, Steadicam aesthetic (while adding some wide-angle lenses and POV shots for variety). The tenor of the film ebbs and flows, swaying from moments of beauty (the waterfalls at the valley’s edges) to ones of danger (there’s another astute edit at a military training compound, where the film cuts from a shot of a soldier playfully balancing a rifle on his chin to one of a recruit fiercely stabbing a dummy with a bayonet). And then there are the pristine sequences that capture both beauty and agony, as when a distraught Fani prays on her knees, framed by the humble door of her farmhouse.
The camera floats through fields, as you’d expect, but it also prowls prisons.
Although she’s not given quite the presence that Jessica Chastain’s wife and mother has in The Tree of Life, Fani brings her own forcefulness to the narrative, even challenging Franz’s convictions at one point: “You can’t change the world. The world’s stronger. I need you.” Pachner and Diehl deliver potent performances, both separately and together, able to achieve a fluidity in movement and expression—almost like dancers—as the camera swirls about them. They’re open and available to Malick’s scrutiny—the God’s-eye view he imitates—at any moment, in every scene.
All of this makes Franz and Fani’s separation acutely felt, even if some of the personal details of their story remain vague. After Franz is imprisoned, the movie occasionally returns to Fani alone, honoring the hard labor she now endures. Behind bars with Hanz, A Hidden Life enters a different musical movement, one that recalls the spiritual distress of the films of Robert Bresson—not only A Man Escaped, which is set in prison, but also the dark night of the soul that envelops the doubting title character in Diary of a Country Priest. And yet here, too, conviction distinguishes A Hidden Life. If Bresson’s films turn on angst, Malick’s tentatively works its way toward assurance. There is a repeated Steadicam shot drifting down the dark halls of the prison toward a glowing window, reminding us that for all the power they held, the Nazis couldn’t blot out the sun. The way Malick and Widmer move the camera, it feels less like we’re approaching the window and more like we’re being drawn to it.
The movie’s boldest visual stroke of assurance—and one of the most galvanizing shots Malick has put onscreen—comes when all earthly hope is lost. Emaciated, abused, facing death’s literal door, Franz hears whispers, as well as Fani calling his name. Then the movie cuts to a shot traveling along one of the valley’s roads, green all around, as Hanz, on his motorcycle, emerges from the bottom corner of the screen and zooms forward down the path. Shot at a time of day to capture the sun sinking down behind those mountains, it’s not just a motorcycle ride. It’s another blessing.