Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life Is an Anti-War Triumph

Writer/director Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life ranks among the greatest anti-war films, along with Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966), and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). But unlike Renoir’s social humanism, de Broca’s absurdist aesthetic, or Stone’s grunt’s-eye-view realism, Malick’s visionary film strives for the heightened experience of poetic lyricism and spiritual cinema. 

A Hidden Life is inspired by a true story. Its protagonist, Franz Jägerstätter, was a real-life Austrian war resister. Before the Third Reich’s 1938 annexation of Austria and the start of World War II, Franz (played by August Diehl) was an integral member of the traditional Alpine village of Sankt Radegund, near the German state of Bavaria. There, he lived on a farm 1,570 feet up in the mountains with his mother Rosalia (Karin Neuhäuser), his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner), the couple’s three daughters, and Franziska’s sister Resie (Maria Simon).

Franz is portrayed as an archetypal family man devoted to his mother and children and in a warm, loving relationship with his wife. But World War II encroaches on their rural mountainous community and sets Franz apart from his fellow villagers. At first, he attends basic training with fellow Austrian conscripts, who expect a rapid end to the conflict. But as the war drags on, Franz is summoned to active duty in the Wehrmacht and his doubts deepen. Assembled with other draftees at a garrison, Franz alone refuses to swear allegiance to der Führer. 

World War II encroaches on their rural mountainous community and sets Franz apart from his fellow villagers.

Back home, Franz’s family is shunned by most villagers, and his wife and their three little girls are threatened. Eventually Franz is shipped off to a penitentiary in Berlin, where guards abuse prisoners with impunity, to await a military trial. His defense attorney suggests he might save his neck by agreeing to serve at a hospital, instead of as a soldier in combat. But when informed that this would mean taking an oath of loyalty to Hitler, Franz refuses. 

Ultimately, Franz’s day before the kangaroo court arrives. In canny casting, the uniformed Nazi Judge Lueben is played by the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who so brilliantly depicted Hitler in 2004’s Downfall and who died in February. The fascist tribunal’s judgment on the draft resister is inevitable, proving once again that military justice is to justice what military music is to music. 

A Hidden Life raises many questions. Why didn’t the authorities simply execute the defiant Franz rather than engage a protracted judicial process? I suspect it’s because he wasn’t a Jew, communist, socialist, disabled, or some other enemy of the fascist state. In addition, the Reich needed farmers at the home front.

An even more profound question is why did Franz resist? He seems to lack class consciousness and doesn’t belong to a union or some other “subversive” group. His motivation appears to be religious. Although Franz does not appear to be overly pious, and the film depicts clergy critically, he was a sexton shown ringing the village church’s bells. Franz has an abiding faith in basic Christian tenets, such as “Thou Shall Not Kill” and “Do Unto Others.”

A Hidden Life is one of at least four major movies coming out now about World War II. There is also the satire Jojo Rabbit from New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, the Czech film The Painted Bird based on Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel, and Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Midway.

One explanation for the current crop of World War II movies may be that 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. But the films may also be prompted in part as a response to the growing threat posed by Donald Trump and other rightwing nationalists and “populists,” from Erdogan of Turkey, to Duterte of the Philippines, to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Earlier, I referred to A Hidden Life as employing poetic lyricism, meaning the film’s inner meaning is cinematically expressed through images, rather than action or dialogue. Malick, working in the tradition of filmmakers such as France’s Jean Cocteau, cleverly counterpoints this sublime cinematography to black and white film clips of Nazi rallies. And the film’s Alpine beauty is contrasted with home movies of Hitler and his cronies at der Führer’s Bavarian mountain retreat.

To be sure, popcorn munchers at the multiplex accustomed to nonstop explosions, car chases, and superheroes may find this two-hour, fifty-four-minute film perplexingly ponderous. But others will find that Franz Jägerstätter was, in his own way, a true superhero for the ages.

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