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The Heavy-Handed Moralism of Terrence Malick’s New Film

“A Hidden Life” is a strangely simplistic movie about good and evil.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

It should be hard nowadays to make art set in Europe just before or during World War II without arousing some suspicion. Too often in such films and books there’s a longing, however concealed, for some prelapsarian moment when right and wrong, good guys and bad, seem to have been helpfully demarcated, and every day provided the opportunity to display one’s mettle. Often it’s presented as if back then the task of living a good life was merely very difficult—a question of courage—and not also horribly confusing. In A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick embraces this purifying impulse with more gusto and less apology than any filmmaker I can think of. And perhaps only Malick could at this historical moment make a film so overconfident in its visual and moral convictions.

As usual in Malick’s work, plot is subsumed by image and idea, and here the entire narrative arc can be ascertained from the trailer. Although it is based on real events, the story is spookily well matched to the writer-director’s sensibility and preoccupations. Early in the war, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who lives in a remote village with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), and their children, is called up to fight. He begins his training, but his conscience will not allow him to swear the requisite oath to Hitler, and this refusal propels the story. Seemingly alone in his objections to fascism, or at least in his determination to act on them, he remains steadfast while everyone—from relatives to neighbors to the local priest to the military authorities to a lawyer assigned to defend him—presses him to abandon his position.

They assail him with arguments: about his duty to God and country, the likely fate of his family, the egoism of presuming he alone knows right from wrong, the futility of a gesture that few will ever hear of and that will have no practical effect on the course of the war. These stakes are restated over and over, reinforced by spare, heightened dialogue and voice-over, the classical score, the aching sublime of the vast landscape. “If God gives us free will,” Franz says, “we’re responsible for what we do, and what we fail to do.” (Almost everyone in the film speaks this way at all times.) Pained but unwavering, he is imprisoned and eventually put to death. Malick offers this as a kind of philosophical test case and religious allegory—and indeed the real Jägerstätter, though unheralded for years after his execution at 36, was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church decades later.

Both Diehl and Pachner are blessed with striking bone structure, and here Malick exploits it to the full. The characters have been mostly emptied of individual qualities, the better to be filled with fervor. This could have been a silent film, so steadily and thoroughly are the themes put across, so clear and strong the currents of feeling. As with Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, these two suffer like religious icons, only here it begins early; every moment of prewar parenthood and farming appears painfully beautiful, lived as if the participants know what’s coming—the supposedly carefree Franz already loves his wife like a man condemned. Each embrace is a pietà waiting to happen, each feeling—affection, duty, concern—a transcendent Romantic passion that totally suffuses their faces.

When you can see the faces, that is—Malick often cuts people off at the neck, shows them shoulder to torso or waist to ankle, the camera inhabiting an eccentric viewpoint that rarely belongs to any identifiable character and yet is pointedly subjective, never that of a Godlike, omniscient narrator. You could almost imagine the camera a creature that feels everything and understands nothing, its movements unpredictable yet emotionally consistent. Malick has long nurtured his gift for conveying paradise lost, and here, as in the childhood scenes in The Tree of Life, this heightened experience of the ordinary is presented, with the help of the voice-over, as a function of memory after grief: Small details of a loved one appear enlarged while you’re forced to reinvent whatever was outside the frame; landscapes swallow and loom above, as if Franz and the viewer are being pressed ever downward by a massive force. Everything vibrates with underlying meaning and purpose, yet people must act without knowing for sure what these are. It’s impossible to see the end of the war when you can barely see the horizon, a sliver of sky above a huge, heavy expanse of mountain or tree or stream. The biggest vistas are the most claustrophobic, as if there can be no world outside, or perhaps as if the world is resisting Malick’s attempt to represent it.

The film begins and ends with darkness and birdsong. The latter recalls Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the classic evocation of evil thriving in a verdant Europe. But where Lanzmann framed the Holocaust as an incomparable horror that ripped itself outside history, in Malick both the history and the horror are curiously elided. It’s unclear just what Franz knows, and how, about the actual events of the war. “Don’t they know evil when they see it?” a friend asks. There’s the strong suggestion that rural Austria was a land of unspoiled goodness before an unaccountable alien force entered in. The war serves mostly as an excuse to examine Franz’s Christlike passion and sacrifice, his propensity for the type of “grace” described by the mother in The Tree of Life, which allows itself to be “slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” The movie dwells only on the man and his hidden life, that of the spirit.

The title is drawn from the ending of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, quoted on-screen at the close of the movie, about the incalculable influence of those “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” But a lot of what hides such lives, the mundane social comings and goings that would swell a George Eliot novel, has been deliberately stripped out of this portrayal. The other villagers are at first just part of the magnificent landscape in which the couple gambol, before their gossip and shunning and sabotaging begin to personify the evil that has encroached. It’s hard to tell whether it’s an intentional irony that the fantasia we’re presented with at the start, the one under ominous threat from without—Land! Volk! sturdy couples enthusiastically bodying forth blond offspring!—is the kind a fascist would adore, but it seems forgivable to pose the question about Malick, who turned to film after starting out as a Heideggerian philosopher, and whose works are full of ruined Edens.

The enemy, too, appears somewhat distorted. In Malick’s conception, it’s implied that evil recognizes good and shrinks from it, like Dracula before a clove of garlic. Franz’s refusal to participate seems to inspire a special, shame-ridden rage in those he encounters. Nazis are not so much, say, convinced of the righteousness of their poisonous ideology, or myopically focused on pleasing their superiors, as consciously locked in a Manichaean struggle with our hero. The result is that they look impossible to beat yet strangely easy to embarrass. Meanwhile, the film’s fascination with the inner strength required to withstand such a crushing assault—with “the anvil that outlives the hammer”—rather indicates a fetishistic love of strength itself. The camera lingers on Franz, suffering stoically, and on the struggles of his wife as she drags her plow through the fields with only her sister for help, passing the point of collapse.

The heavy symbolism and intimate yet universalizing approach to character encourage the viewer to project herself into the world on-screen, to consider what she might be capable of in such circumstances, and what a person of conscience ought to do. Franz’s willingness to maintain his stance even at the cost of his life and his family’s welfare is affecting. But Franz is no Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, nor a Primo Levi, and there is something conspicuous in the abstraction and remove of his endeavor.

Early on, Franz talks to a man restoring some murals in a church, who says he wishes he had the guts to show Christ’s suffering as it must really have been. That’s not what most people like to see, he observes: “Christ’s life is a demand—we don’t want to be reminded of it.” You could view the muralist as a stand-in for Malick himself, who passes his own test with the film you’re watching. And it’s oddly analogous to the test Franz faces. At one point, in prison, his lawyer offers to negotiate a deal in which Franz need not serve, instead working out the war as an orderly in a hospital, treating civilians. All he has to do is swear the oath. He refuses. In one sense just another turn of the screw, this is also a crucial shift in the moral calculus. It’s now explicit that what’s at stake is Franz’s responsibility, not to avoid doing harm, but to tell the truth without compromise. This is more the test of an artist than an ordinary citizen.

At times, Malick’s film feels like an extremely austere retelling of The Sound of Music, using the war to spin a dark fairy tale. Malick seems more at home in his version of this period than he so far has in the twenty-first century. Yet A Hidden Life has a quality very much of the moment. Like current comic-book movies, it claims a certain openness to ambiguity in a fallen world—you try to act righteously without even the reward of believing that it will do any good—while actually providing the comfort of whizbang moral absolutism. Whereas some of Malick’s previous films allow various worldviews to compete, this one is relentless—it demands aesthetic and moral submission.