A Hidden Life: Terrence Malick Helps Us See the Invisible
Franz Jägerstätter was a man whose motivation came from the constant conversation he had with an invisible and inaudible friend—the God he eventually chose to follow to the cross. Drafted to serve in the Nazi army during World War II, Jägerstätter refused to take the required oath of loyalty to Hitler and was guillotined for it, leaving behind a wife (Franziska, or Fani) and three small daughters. Unrecognized until long after his death, Jägerstätter was declared a martyr by the Catholic church and beatified in 2007.
In Malick’s swooping camera to the sky, there’s a third character in this marriage, the God whose voice calls Franz.On the surface, this outwardly clear-cut plot (the brutal ending is never in doubt) accompanied by a complex inner struggle seems an unlikely fit for the visual medium of film. But in Terrence Malick’s new A Hidden Life, a combination of effects—scenes of rural beauty, snatches of real letters between Franz and Fani, conversations with friends and neighbors, crescendos of music and the oppressive drones of Nazi planes—forms a symphony that helps those of us on the outside see and understand what’s happening within. Malick’s latest film shows us the hidden life of a Christian couple, two ordinary people deciding with God how to respond to the good and evil of their time.
Since his 1978 Days of Heaven, Malick has become famous for exactly this—letting us in on the inner landscape of his characters. We hear their fragmented thoughts and bits of what others have said to them in voiceover. Repeated images or phrases of music become symbolic triggers associated with a particular emotion or idea, like the way a certain smell can put us immediately back in a memory.
No echoed image or word in a Malick film is an accident. Viewers must take careful note of shots and sounds that we might dismiss as background in another movie. The Tree of Life uses drifting underwater shots as a symbol of rebirth—they recur at the moment of the lead’s birth (like a baptism), a childhood moment when he asks his brother to forgive his sin (another cleansing), and again during the scene of the resurrection of the dead on a beach (the final rebirth). In Knight of Cups, a lone wanderer in a vast desert with voiceover quotes from The Pilgrim’s Progress stands for the lead’s spiritual search. Following Malick’s technique requires patience (A Hidden Life runs nearly three hours), but that patience is greatly rewarded.
A Hidden Life opens by introducing some of the notes that will be used throughout the film to create the symphony. There’s a voiceover from Franz, “I thought we could build our nest high up . . . fly away like birds to the mountains . . .” His voice is interrupted by original Nazi propaganda footage—a plane, Hitler waving to adoring crowds, a giant bonfire. Then, we see the Jägerstätters at work on their farm, and the stunning Austrian mountains bathed in sunlight. There’s the sound of wind, and there’s running water: a waterfall, a river. These are the symbols of the heavenly nest birds fly away to.
Another early sequence provides our first introduction to the voice calling Franz. With the camera inside a dark doorway looking out to the sunlit mountainside, Franz enters the town’s small church and pulls the bell rope. He walks alone to the edge of a field where the forest begins. There’s a soft swell of music. The camera sweeps away from Franz and upward to the treeline, to the sky and sunlight. Franz looks sharply over his shoulder into the distance, and we wonder, who’s there? What has he heard? On the mountainside, a blindfolded and smiling Franz stumbles after Fani and the girls who creep silently around him, occasionally hitting metal jugs with spoons. He knows they’re present, if just out of reach.
The same chords of music recur when Franz asks his neighbors if they believe in what they’re fighting for. Remembering that music from earlier, we should be on alert now for the voice Franz looked over his shoulder to find. The village mayor soapboxes at the local pub, “Foreigners swarm over our streets . . . This is what happens when a world dies.” Franz will not toast with him. Away from the pub a moment later, Fani’s father asks Franz, “Don’t they know evil when they see it?” Outside on the road, the music swells, and the camera pulls away from Franz and up to the mountains and sun. Franz stands in the light outside a dark doorway, and walks away from it. Storm clouds gather over the mountains. Hearing thunder, Franz looks up from his work in the field and over his shoulder into the distance. A moment later, he paces in the sunlit vestibule of the church. This time, Franz acts on his experience with that voice—he’s made a decision. He walks with his parish priest on the road outside and voices the fateful words for the first time, “Father, if I’m called up, I can’t serve.”
Doorways from darkness to light loom over Franz’s decision. He stands inside doorways peering out to the light. Looking out the doorway of a sawmill to a bright orchard, he and Fani discuss his choice. A neighbor asks, “What are you going to do?” over a shot of the dark doorway, looking out to sun-drenched cows outside.
The cross Franz is choosing comes into stark focus as he approaches his church one day. There’s a lingering voiceover from the last scene, Fani’s father asking, “What can we little people here do?”, as in answer, Franz pauses on the way to gaze at a crucifix beside the road. In the church, Franz listens to a painter who bemoans the sentimentality of his murals. “Christ’s life is a demand . . . We don’t want to be reminded,” he says. “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo on his head . . .” At the word “halo,” there’s a shot over Franz’s shoulder, with the dappled light through the leaves playing on his cheek. Malick’s voiceovers and visuals are always in subtle conversation with each other. This isn’t just a reaction shot; it’s Malick linking Franz to the halo and, by extension, the cross. “Someday,” says the painter, “I’ll paint the true Christ.” A few moments later, the music swells, Franz looks into the distance, a storm brews in the mountains, and as it starts raining (water flowing from the sky like the waterfall in the heavenly nest), two neighbors greet Franz with “Heil, Hitler.” Franz startles them by responding, “Phooey, Hitler!”
Valerie Pachner’s portrayal of Fani is unusually personal and grounded for a woman in a Malick film. She’s not an archetype of grace or primeval beauty. She is simply herself, a farmwife, pinned solidly to earth in heavy work boots and thick wool socks. She plants potatoes, disciplines children, and hauls buckets of mud out of the bottom of the well when it runs dry. She bears the ire of her neighbors, who spit on her in the town and throw mud at her children.
Fani is the first one to notice a change in Franz. “These last weeks you’re different,” she says. It hurts Franz to see Fani endure the slights of their neighbors. He asks her, “What did they say to you?” and tries to offer comfort. Her opinion is vital to him, and we see her react to his dilemma more than once hoping for some other outcome. Again he’s looking out a doorway, and next to him she looks out too and asks, “When have our prayers not been answered?” She questions him in the orchard, “You could work in a hospital. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” But while Franz stands in a doorway to light, Fani is repeatedly shot in the dark against the inside wall of the barn without a doorway—only chinks of light coming in through the slats. When the symbol of Franz’s decision gets near Fani, it’s a barrier instead of a gate.
When it becomes clear that Franz has made up his mind to turn himself in and refuse service, there’s no need for him to even answer Fani’s question, “You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” Pulling away from his outstretched arms, she collapses on the ground in tears, hugging a tangled knot of rope in her lap like an unsolvable problem. Even then, she could make a move to stop him, and she doesn’t.
Images give us the presence of evil too, harkening back to the bonfire in the black-and-white Nazi footage. Early on, we see Fani at a bonfire with drifting smoke. “We burned the bad weeds,” she writes to Franz. Later, the mayor moves frenetically around a bonfire, gesturing to gathered men in Nazi uniforms. The mayor yells directly at Franz, too, “You are a traitor!” Franz tells Fani of his dream about a train hurtling forwards to some unknown destination, and as he goes from home to the army to prisons on trains, we see the coal fires that burn at the heart of the locomotives.
The conversation between Franz, Fani, and God crystalizes in a dark moment in the Berlin prison. We see Franz brutally beaten by the prison guards while we hear Franz’s perhaps most direct moment of prayer in voiceover. He’s riffing on Psalm 23: “You are my shepherd . . . you lead me beside the river of life . . .” The camera floats down the dark prison hallway, looking in at each man in his cell lit from the barred windows. This point-of-view shot can’t belong to Franz, who is cornered by the guards in his cell. Another blow. “You our light…,” he prays, “Darkness is not dark to you.” The music swells again, and the camera rushes down the hallway and up the stairs to the comfort of light streaming in from a window on the prison’s top floor.
But there’s also an indiscernible dark rasp of a whisper in an undertone—a temptation. Fani is praying at the same moment. We see a flash of her kneeling in the barn, where she’s positioned blocking the light from the doorway. Her voiceover is pleading, over Franz wearing chains and kissing a Nazi’s boot. “Lord, you do nothing. Where are you? Why did you create us?” In answer, the shot of flies swarming in Franz’s cell cuts to Franz and Fani at the edge of a ripe wheat field with their daughters in the mountains.
When Fani learns that Franz has been condemned to death, she rushes to Berlin to see him. There are few cuts away to images in this scene, and the only music is an Agnus Dei. The spiritual battle and symbolic symphony are becalmed. It’s Franz’s last chance to change his mind, sign the paper, and swear loyalty to Hitler. Disregarding the arguments of the attorney and the priest, who start the scene standing in front of the small room’s two windows as though blocking the light, Franz looks into Fani’s eyes and asks her, “Do you understand?” Her answer isn’t yes, but it is vibrant in its power. “I love you. Whatever you do, whatever comes, I’m with you always.”
While Franz speaks rarely and shows only subtle emotion on his face, his character is anything but flat because we’ve seen the motions of his interior life. He will give up his beloved mountains and wind, the aching beauty of flowing water and sunlight, and even his wife and daughters not to sign that evil oath, and to follow the Christ he’s heard and looked for over his shoulder. Fani’s sacrifice of love means everything because we’ve heard the cries to God she hasn’t shared with Franz and seen the obstacles of barn walls and knots she’s overcome to say those words. In Malick’s swooping camera to the sky, there’s a third character in this marriage, the God whose voice calls Franz. To echo the painter, in A Hidden Life, Malick has painted a true Christ.
Thank you so much for writing this.
Nice. Thanks for helping me go deeper. Our viewing group thought the painter was a type of ” cameo appearance” of Malick the artist. The film also portrays the beauty and the risk of a tight, closed community, and the threats of group think on the individual and individual free choice. The film experience for me was one of richness, like whipping cream for the senses, emotions and mind: thick, buttery, full. The group I viewed the movie with agreed we all needed to avoid the big blockbuster movie that opened this weekend, so as not to ‘pollute’ what Malick gifted us with – at least not for a few more days…..
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