Dir. Terrence Malick. Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Tobias Moretti
Spoilers, yes, but I also don’t know that if you know anything about this movie that it could be spoiled.
After all the hubbub that led to Abraham Lincoln’s ascension to the presidency—the brokered convention that put Lincoln on the Republican ticket, the broken Democratic Party that nominated two men for president—he had to leave his adopted home of Springfield, Illinois. In February 1861, he got on a train that took him away from Springfield; for reasons beyond his power, he never came home again. “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return,” he said presciently. “Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended [George Washington], I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.” It’s fitting that Franz Jagerstatter (Diehl) gets on a train to leave his unbelievably beautiful hamlet, St. Radegund. He must have had a similar premonition to the one that Lincoln had, although for rather different reasons. A dream about getting on such a deadly train ruined his sleep, but more practically, he knew that he would not swear the oath to Hitler, and thus he would have had to put the pieces together. His wife, Fani (Pachner), walked him to the train, ran with it as it accelerated, holding her husband’s hands in hers, and then ran after it a little distance, waving beyond the point where Franz would have been able to see her. (Why does anyone say goodbye anywhere near a train? The best thing that could happen to you is what happened to Anna Karenina; the worst that could happen is what happened to Laura Jesson.) I watched as carefully as I could to see who would let go first, but they fooled me. They let go at the same time. They say that if you’re married long enough you start to develop a kind of telepathy with your spouse.
So many people wear wedding rings in this movie. Or, to put it differently, Malick wants us to know how many people in this movie are married. The bands are all gold, rounded, simple. We might not know, for example, that Bruno Ganz’s Nazi judge is married, but he has that ring on his finger to show us. A Hidden Life is about all the things that one would expect the story of a conscientious objector would be about. It’s about tremendous personal fortitude, and honest religious faith, and the cruelty of unjust government. (There are a couple lines in the movie about rejecting immigrants and things like that, and you will find multiple commenters calling it a statement about our current political sinkhole. This is a wonderful object lesson in working too hard to make a picture “relevant,” as Malick shot the movie, as far as I can tell, before Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. Perhaps this was an intended dig at the then-Republican nominee, but people hated immigrants before the Trump administration, too.) Above all, though, it’s about being in love in one’s marriage. Franz and Fani are in love. They are a little old for it, maybe, but they still do the things that younger couples in particular do. Fani in particular is surprisingly playful, an adherent of the school of thought that believes love is foalish, made of teasing touches that would not be out of place in children’s games. After all, they are not necessarily sexual gestures; Fani is as likely to try to soak her sister with a bucketful of water as she is to tag Franz. In multiple scenes they doze off in the grass; they would agree with Whitman that it is “hopeful green stuff woven.” They take bites from the same apple; when Franz comes home from his first training, Fani runs to him and they kiss hard. Franz and Fani love their three little daughters, too. They have family who live with them, Franz’s mother (Karin Neuhauser) and Fani’s sister (Maria Simon), and Resie in particular is essential to the household in the way she functions as farmhand and comforter alike. The film never strays away from the marriage, though. The rings tell us so. The people officiating marriages frequently say as much when they talk about what the ring symbolizes, although in the day to day of one’s life it is a reminder, a few ounces to signify the enormous weight of a marriage. The longer the movie goes on, and the longer Franz is incarcerated, the more weighty those rings become.
To Franz, as it I imagine it does for most of us wedded folks, marriage means home as well. St. Radegund is overwhelmingly beautiful, and I think it would have been overwhelmingly beautiful even if our greatest devoted landscape artist since Monet weren’t filming it. Shooting in central Europe, Malick seems to have transported back in time not to the 1940s but the 1840s. There are some smatterings of 20th Century technology and culture bopping around, although the most memorable sign of technological advancement in the movie is one that is particularly horrifying. Fani hears a strange noise and looks above her. Clearly she’s looking at an airplane, but it’s distinctly possible that she has never seen one before, and Malick never does show us the plane; showing us the strange noise and the puzzled look on Fani’s face shows us enough. Aside from that, this is a farming village where people use scythes like they do in, well, Anna Karenina, where plows still carve the land and livestock are the engines. We return here again and again, even when Franz is in prison. From one point of view that may seem redundant, especially if one is inclined to read Malick as a director whose ideas are not the equal of his images. I’m not that way inclined. A Hidden Life is a truly subjective movie, one that invites us to understand the way that Franz understands. It assumes that we will be on his wavelength about what God expects of us, even if we disagree about free will. In a few moments of horror, we see what Franz must see from his own perspective. And the movie expects us to share his love for the place he lives, a place he wandered into on his motorcycle many years ago. A Hidden Life returns again and again to Franz’s home because it is impossible to separate the land from his love, and without those two things his protest could not endure. The shot that broke my heart most in this movie (and there are a great many heartbreakers to choose from) lasts perhaps a second, no more. We’ve seen him lie down in the grass before several times in Radegund. In prison, he finds a little patch of grass and tries to do the same thing. There is no Fani there, and there is no beauty either. It is the poorest reconstruction of the sublime happiness he knew in his marriage and in his home, and there is so much innocence in the way he tries to recreate it for himself. There may not be another time when Franz wants in this movie, certainly not with this kind of purity and hopefulness; it takes a second for it to be dashed away.
Despairingly beautiful is more like it. There’s a good ecocritical reading of the picture to be had here, one which contrasts a humble agrarian life with the mechanized one the Nazis have, the contrast of wooden homes in St. Radegund to peeling and whitewashed brick jail cells in Berlin. Malick depicts a world of sustainability, where people live within their means and there is no real pollution to speak of. This is Canaan, in what’s probably the hundredth most lovely shot of the picture:
The church, tall and elegant in the distance. The mountains, though, foreboding, skirted by, presumably, murmuring pines and hemlocks. The church is quite beautiful inside as well, painted with edifying pictures. The man who paints them is a little anxious about what he’s doing, concerned that he’s failing to bring people closer to God in lieu of the pictures. It’s as close to a self-critique as any director can make, but I don’t know that Malick ought to worry too much about it. For one thing, those inclined to find God in Nature will do so here. But for another, Malick is working in conversation with another one of those marvelously spiritual filmmakers. Like Andrei Tarkovsky, the juxtaposition of faithful actions or faithful conversations with moving water is stunning. In one place, Malick builds a river and a waterfall and a water wheel on top of one another after a discussion about God. It is a clear homage, a welcome one, and a little bit sad as well; Malick has already outlived Tarkovsky by more than two decades, but he will be as irreplaceable a spiritual filmmaker as his Soviet predecessor was.
There’s another great Russian who comes to mind watching this movie. Although the title comes from the writings of George Eliot (that people who led a “hidden life” are responsible for the improvements in our world just as the people who more often get credit for the doings), I couldn’t help thinking of Anton Chekhov and his Vershinin from The Three Sisters. Vershinin scoffs at the Prozorovs’ belief that they know too much, saying that “it stands to reason” that even if the masses crush them in their own lives, “you won’t disappear without having influenced anybody.” The Nazis, presumably, do not have too many readers of Eliot or Chekhov. Almost all of their interactions with Franz seem to begin with some variant on “You don’t think you’re going to change anything, do you?” Some of them, maybe just a smidge too knowingly (although Bruno Ganz, bless him, manages to make this particular line work), reject that idea that anyone will know who Franz was or what he did. How concerned they are, and how concerned so many of us are, with ends. The Nazis argue that the ends justify the means, after all. It is more chilling when a good man, like the local minister (Moretti), pleads with Franz to swear his oath and live. God doesn’t care about the the words you say, the minister says, but what’s in your heart. The intent doesn’t matter, but the effect does. Only Fani comes close to understanding her husband, which is both right and terrible, because she is the first person to know that Franz will be executed, and she is the first person who would be crushed by his death. She tells him that she will support whatever he chooses to do, because she understands what Franz understands. There is another end in a hereafter, one that they can put their hope in, and until then they must hope that they are justified in a staggering show of faith.