Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” (2019)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

In my Catholic grade school, we were required to start each day with the Pledge of Allegiance like any other school. We would dutifully stand with our hands over our hearts, face the flag, and monotonously recite the words that had been hammered into our memory. We didn’t give much thought to it beyond its ornamental place at the top of the morning. One day, a classmate was singled out for standing stone-still during the pledge. When asked why he didn’t participate in the daily ritual that instance, he responded with a question loaded with a naive, childlike innocence and a piercing clarity of conscience beyond his years: “what if America does something bad?”. How could he be expected to put patriotism over his faith if the two were to come into conflict? The answer, of course, is that he shouldn’t; the supposed luxury of America is that he would never have to be put in that position in the first place. The historical reality has shown such “luxuries” to be the stuff of national mythmaking, but nevertheless, the implications of such a question have yet to become an urgent concern for him. History is full of people who weren’t so fortunate.

“We shouldn’t be so smug as to assume that we would always know the right thing to do, or even be brave enough to do it… a true act of resistance should crack our universe open”.

Those are the words of critic Bilge Ebiri, writing for New York Magazine’s culture blog, Vulture. His words speak, generally, to the conflict between moralistic principle and our natural human weaknesses. More pointedly, however, he’s talking about the core takeaway of director Terrence Malick’s 2019 feature, A HIDDEN LIFE. Over the course of nine feature films, the reclusive auteur has grappled with the challenge of reconciling our base impulses with our intellect, and the complications it causes when we try to heed a higher calling. At once both deeply cerebral and deeply spiritual, Malick’s ambitious, polarizing filmography weaves philosophy, religion, mythology and montage into an uncompromising worldview that strikes at the essence of cinema itself. 

In its telling of the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant farmer who refused to pledge his loyalty to Adolf Hitler and paid the ultimate price, A HIDDEN LIFE becomes Malick’s most celebrated work since 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE. Heralded as something of a return to form after a divisive triptych of improvised excursions into contemporary mindscapes, A HIDDEN LIFE embraces the most fundamental of filmmaking disciplines— the screenplay, written by the director himself as a narrative scaffold upon which to hang his sprawling visual allegories. August Diehl, a relative unknown on our shores, plays Jägerstätter, a devoted family man living in the mountainous Austrian village of St. Radegund in 1939. As World War 2 consumes the outside world, the pastoral tranquility he enjoys with his wife and daughters finds itself under the creeping shadow of fascism. Hitler’s forces have arrived to conscript the village’s men into service, awakening Jägerstätter’s conscientious objections. His devotion to Christ proves incompatible with the devotion to Hitler demanded by his countrymen, and he comes to find himself isolated by a population deluded by the surface prosperities of nationalism, all too happy to overlook the monstrous nature of its engine. 

It would be the easiest thing in the world to verbally affirm his loyalty to a dictator and go into some kind of non-combatant role more in line with this pacifist identity, but the nature of faith isn’t about taking the easy way out. Jägerstätter could be forgiven for saying what the armed fascists want to hear for the sake of his family and his own life, but once vocalized, he knows that God will remember this failing long after his countrymen have forgotten. That, he cannot live with… but to hold fast in the face of atrocity also means he won’t live anyway. Thus informs a tortured, intensely internal performance by Diehl (who, it should be noted, played a villainous Nazi in the basement tavern sequence from Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTARDS ten years prior). He’s countered by his conflicted wife, Fani, embodied by actress Valerie Pachner with a flinty, salt-of-the-earth tenderness. She’s pained by the devastation that her husband’s choice has brought on their quiet, peaceful life, which invites the open contempt of other villagers as she works in the fields trying to provide for her three daughters.

Over the ensuing three hours (his longest theatrical runtime to date), Malick charts the internal and external tumult of this heart wrenching, years-long crucible, depicting the increasing hostility of their pastoral village as well as Franz’s subsequent imprisonment and ultimate end via the guillotine. Just as his casting of Diehl and Pachner deviates from his usual practice of hiring A-list celebrities, Malick populates A HIDDEN LIFE’s sprawling supporting cast with a bevy of relatively unknown — but no less expressive — faces. Of these, a few performances in particular linger in the mind. Within the provincial town of St. Radegund, Karl Markovics’ Mayor Kraus and Tobias Moretti’s Father Furthauer are authority figures who stand at opposite poles. Furthauer, the village priest, embodies pragmatic compassion, gently urging Franz away from his convictions for the sake of his family. With his aggressive, barnstorming energy and little mustache, Mayor Kraus resembles something of a wannabe Hitler, aping the dictator’s physicality as he whips the villagers up into a nationalist frenzy. In the process, he delivers a live demonstration on how the Third Reich’s hateful rhetoric trickled down to the local level and infected an entire populace. The late Michael Nyquist, perhaps best known to American audiences as the male lead in the Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO film trilogy, makes his final, fleeting film appearance here via Bishop Frieger, a troubled church leader whose authority is useless in the face of fascism. A HIDDEN LIFE also marks the final appearance of celebrated Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who plays the Nazi judge at Franz’s court martial proceedings.

All of these affecting performances are rendered in Malick’s signature elliptical storytelling style, which prefers a cascade of fleeting, singular moments that express a particular idea or sentiment over conventional, dialogue-driven coverage. His previous three features aggressively pushed this experimental, poetic style to their outermost limits, so it stands to reason that A HIDDEN LIFE would pull back somewhat. Towards that end, he achieves an appealing and effective balance that maintains a constant throughline of narrative clarity. Malick’s artistic approach has never been one of compromise, but it does value the many virtues of collaboration. In foregoing the presence of recurring A-list cast members and longtime technical partners like production designer Jack Fisk or cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, his style seems rejuvenated. New collaborators like production designer Sebastian Krawinkel and composer James Newton-Howard intermix with new-ish ones— people already in Malick’s orbit who embraced the opportunity to move up. This includes editors Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason and Sebastian Jones, as well as Chivo’s longtime Steadicam operator Jörg Widmer, who readily steps up to the challenge of being a HIDDEN LIFE’s cinematographer.

Whereas many Directors of Photography emerge from the ranks of gaffers or assistant camera positions, Steadicam operators can content themselves with being practitioners of an exclusive, highly-specialized discipline that is a career in and of itself. Given how heavily Malick’s aesthetic leans on unencumbered camerawork, Widmer’s elevation makes intuitive sense, as does the choice to shoot entirely with digital cameras for the first time in Malick’s theatrical career. Indeed, one might wonder why it took this long for Malick to go digital, what with the format’s effortless capacity for lightweight maneuverability, high shooting ratios, and low-light exposure. The misty mountains and sloping fields surrounding the village of St. Radegund demand an appropriately dramatic canvas, making Malick and Widmer’s choice to shoot with the Red Epic Dragon camera in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio almost a foregone conclusion. A collection of Zeiss Master Prime lenses soften the crystal-clarity of the digital sensor, lending a nice filmic quality to beautiful, fleeting compositions that make repeated use of the imperfect, mixed-hues of golden hour and twilight. Malick and Widmer often position the subjects of their compositions against the primary light source (usually the sun), scattering the photons into a pleasing, low-contrast field of illumination. Compositions often fall below the eye-line, mixing the lower vantage point with a combination of wide angle lenses and close-up framing. The resulting effect — a technique that Malick has deployed with increasing frequency since THE TREE OF LIFE — is one of distorted immersiveness, the edges of the frame seemingly wrapping around our backs like an embrace. Odd as it might seem, this effect is instrumental in Malick’s ability to place us in his protagonist’s headspace, to the extent that we come to feel the same stomach-churning, existential anxiety Franz feels as he’s led through the formalized efficiency of his execution. It helps that the film, shot primarily in northern Italy, Austria and Berlin, also utilizes the actual Jägerstätter home as its primary location (1), steeping A HIDDEN LIFE in a granular level of authenticity and realism.

Malick’s films have a reputation for developing unusually slowly in the editorial suite; seeing as his storytelling style foregoes conventional linear coverage in favor of a cascading flow of allusive imagery, ample time and reflection is required to determine the right sequencing of shots. Though A HIDDEN LIFE had the benefit of a screenplay to guide its shaping, it would still take three years for Malick and his editors to find its final form. His lyrical aesthetic is, by nature, much more dependent on supplemental footage and music than other, more-straightforward storytellers. Just as his previous three films incorporated mixed media to supplement and enrich the principal footage, A HIDDEN LIFE imbues a sense of the wider world with historical footage culled from a variety of sources. Some clips are purely functional; the film opens with a black-and-white film excerpt from Leni Reifenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935), using images of Nazi rallies and Adolf Hitler on parade so as to establish the film’s setting and the intimidating cult of personality that Franz will soon find himself up against. More unsettling than those open displays of fascism at the height of its power, however, are what appear to be color 16mm home movies of Hitler on vacation not far from Franz’s secluded village. In seeing these moments of a tyrant at play, enjoying dressed-down leisure time and even goofing around with children, Malick positions his inherent evil as the absence of conscience. Far from looking tortured by an ideology that directly led to millions of deaths, he seems chillingly at ease; without a care in the world. He’s unexpectedly… human. Make no mistake— in these moments, Malick isn’t trying to paint Hitler as a sympathetic figure; he’s showing us how evil can come to easily deceive us by assuming familiar, seemingly-benevolent forms. Furthermore, the magnitude of Jägerstätter’s courage becomes all the more apparent, his defiance holding firm against the overwhelming opposition of a nation’s collective delusions.

Music plays an integral role in the success of Malick’s poetic storytelling style, his frequent use of classical music giving his films an elevated, timeless quality. A HIDDEN LIFE continues this conceit, stringing together seemingly-disparate clips with a variety of compositions by Bach, Handel and Arvo Pärt. An added selection of choral pieces and other religious hymnals reinforce the story’s particular focus on the tenets of Roman Catholicism and its profound influence on Jägerstätter’s conscientious objection. An original score by first-time collaborator James Newton-Howard conforms to this musical palette rather effortlessly— and fulfills this author’s fervent desire for another Newton-Howard score that recaptures the rustic elegance of his work on M. Night Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE (2004). A forty-piece string orchestra (3) reinforces a lilting, poignant theme anchored by a solo piano and violin, the latter played by esteemed violent James Ehnes. Recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios over the course of a single day (3), A HIDDEN LIFE’s score zeroes in on the tenderness of Franz and Fanny’s matrimonial bond, subsequently imbuing the story with the same sweeping sound that marks the high romance of DAYS OF HEAVEN or THE NEW WORLD and transforms the stories of mere men into the realm of myth.

Indeed, Malick’s body of work is uniquely suffused with the distinct impression of life itself — of feeling the breeze against your back, of grazing the fingertips of another person’s hand, of basking in the majesty of the natural world. Though some find his singular storytelling style frustrating, opaque, even pretentious, there’s no denying its immersiveness. A HIDDEN LIFE uses this ability to stunning effect, appropriately conveying the overwhelming beauty of the world that Franz stands to lose before placing us directly into the perspective of a prisoner on death row. This same sense of perspective is fluid, like a river, effortlessly switching over to Fanny’s while she struggles to carry on for the sake of her children while enduring the bitter barbs lobbed at her by the proud villagers. Malick’s preference for ruminative voiceover over conventional dialogue becomes critical in this regard, allowing the audience to ride along the currents of these consciousness streams. Whereas his previous films honed and perfected this technique, Malick uses the opportunity of A HIDDEN LIFE to build on it with new approaches. There are certain moments, like Fanny delivering her sentiments directly to camera as if we were Franz, that blur the line between interior monologue and exterior dramaturgy. The intended perspective is deliberately ambiguous — Malick may be directly placing us in Franz’s head or Fanny may be giving external physicality to her inner thoughts. Regardless, it’s a new wrinkle in his esoteric style, further abstractifying his storytelling while simultaneously clarifying these moments as expressions of sincere self-questioning.

The inner landscapes of Malick’s characters resemble the expansive vistas of his images, their conflicted psyches refracted through the prism of religion, spirituality and philosophy. In a HIDDEN LIFE especially, Malick draws a crucial distinction between spirituality and religion, the former being an intimate, private belief while the latter is, as Variety’s Peter Debrudge would so eloquently put in his review, “a human institution that’s as fallible and corruptible as any individual”. Jägerstätter’s Catholicism is the backbone of his worldview, taking Christ’s teachings to heart as he endeavors to live out a peaceful life with his family. The Third Commandment teaches that there is only one God, warning against the worship of false idols; in the case of many European countries during World War II, the church was too close to the power of the state to keep this Commandment for itself. Fascism demands a singular adoration of the head of state by the general population; an unwavering, unquestioning loyalty that’s preserved through brutality, intimidation, fear and countless human rights violations. Jägerstätter’s Austria demanded total fealty to Hitler as an agent of God, if not a god himself, aided and abetted by religious institutions; whether they were too concerned with clinging on to power and influence, or they simply lacked the lucidity to perceive the many abominations of Nazism, there was a fundamental disconnect that made unexpected martyrs of men like Jägerstätter. A HIDDEN LIFE is consumed by this inner conflict, juxtaposing the majestic theatricality and iconography of Catholicism with the sublime open-air cathedrals of Creation. 

The story makes for timeless subject matter, but it’s also very much a timely reflection of the atmosphere in which it was made. The gradual rise of tyrannical strongmen in governments across the world — Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bolsnaro, among others — would coincide with an increasingly-brazen movement of Far Right acolytes here at home, whipped up into a xenophobic frenzy by outspoken figures in government and the media. Though it was filmed entirely overseas, A HIDDEN LIFE’s production nevertheless took place under the shadow of a presidential administration whose agenda and ideals struck half the country as frighteningly authoritarian despite its frantic flag-waving and breathless exhortations about freedom. There were outright brawls at election rallies, maskless white supremacists marching in the street with torches &  shouting anti-semitic slogans, threats of imprisonment of political opponents, exposed plots about kidnapping liberal governors… all culminating in the once-unthinkable act of a mass invasion of the US capitol by a deluded mob unwilling to accept the outcome of the 2020 election. That many would draw direct comparisons to Nazi Germany is not surprising, and far from a simple knee-jerk reaction. The unspoken horror of this environment is the realization that so many were willing to trade democracy itself for a singular, seemingly-all-powerful political figure who promised prosperity no matter the means. We saw firsthand how easily a political figure could become much more than that to a considerable portion of the population; held up as an infallible entity, or savior… or god. Whether or not Malick set out to draw such parallels in the first place, A HIDDEN LIFE ultimately transcends its historical trappings with an infusion of allegorical subtext that reflects our uncomfortable present. We’re quick to comfort ourselves with the notion that the demons of World War II are conquered and buried, but Malick’s harrowing vision of martyrdom conveys the sobering message that their graves are shallow. If the threat of infection still lingers, then A HIDDEN LIFE shows us the magnitude of courage and sacrifice that is required to break the fever.  

Indeed, Jägerstätter’s story is so remarkable because such courage is so rare. Writing for Slant Magazine, Sam C. Mac would describe A HIDDEN LIFE as a story that endeavors to “seek out souls caught in the tide of history, but which move against its current”. If that was the aim, then Malick certainly succeeded, bringing much-needed light to a relatively-obscure historical episode with unnerving modern day parallels. Given the magnitude of Malick’s artistic profile and the considerable resources at his disposal, A HIDDEN LIFE would seem well-positioned for the awards circuit. The filmmakers’ strategy started out well enough, with a high-profile world premiere at Cannes followed by Malick’s strongest critical consensus since THE TREE OF LIFE. He would even make a rare public appearance in support of the film, presenting it during a special screening arranged at the Vatican Film Library (4). Companies like A24, Netflix and Focus Features  jockeyed for the chance to distribute Malick’s surefire awards contender, with Fox Searchlight emerging as the victor with a staggering $12 million bid the day after its Cannes premiere (2). Even with Fox Searchlight’s future in question thanks to the recent acquisition of its parent studio by the Walt Disney Company, it was simply too rich a bid to deny. 

With its limited release in cinemas, timed to coincide with the apex of the holiday awards season, A HIDDEN LIFE would add an unexpected wrinkle to its legacy as the last film to ever be released under the venerated Twentieth Century Fox banner. Only a few months earlier, Disney had announced its intention to integrate Fox into its holdings by simply — bluntly — scrubbing the Fox brand out of existence. One gets the distinct impression that Disney would not have bought A HIDDEN LIFE if they had any say in the manner, seeing as they would service Fox Searchlight’s commitments to the film with a bare minimum of effort. To borrow a phrase from F. Murray Abraham’s character in the Joel and Ethan Coen-directed film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013), Disney brass clearly didn’t see a lot of money there. One could hardly blame them, given contemporary audiences’ overwhelming predilection for franchise spectacle fare. A HIDDEN LIFE’s financial outlook certainly wasn’t set in stone, but given its minimal marketing and underpowered awards campaigns, the film had clearly been set up to fail. Earning back only a third of its acquisitions price (and roughly half its production budget) at the box office, A HIDDEN LIFE’s anemic performance was no doubt driven in large part by the audience that Malick had personally built up over the preceding decades. These were viewers who hadn’t forgotten Malick’s place in the pantheon of cinematic masters, and who appreciated films that pushed the boundaries of visual storytelling. For these people, A HIDDEN LIFE would stand as a major accomplishment and a vital contribution to the cultural landscape.

Few contemporary American filmmakers focus on the topic of spirituality and religion with as considerate and critical a gaze as Malick. Indeed, most of our domestic “religious” films tend to reinforce the uniquely-American marriage between evangelism and capitalism, simplifying the extremely-complex nature of personal faith into a marketable checklist of culture-war buzzwords and cheap sentiments designed to appeal to an entrenched audience of the already-converted. Moreover, they discourage challenge and genuine self-reflection; mainstream works like the “God Isn’t Dead” series instead exploit the perceived persecution complex that some insecure believers embrace so as to avoid the real work of spirituality— that is, the wrestling of the fundamental shortcomings of our humanity and the lofty ideals of divinity. If it can be said that Malick’s entire filmography is predicated on this conflict, then A HIDDEN LIFE is its culmination. The desire to live is an inescapable component of the human condition; heeding the call to sacrifice for the greater good is as close to godliness as it gets. After all, Christ’s transcendence from his humanity via martyrdom is the engine that drives his narrative’s continued appeal. In telling a similar story through Franz Jägerstätter’s conscientious objection to the Nazi regime, A HIDDEN LIFE translates Christ’s teachings into the sociopolitical language of the past century (and, intentionally or not, our current one as well). Rather than preach to the already-converted, the film reaches across the proverbial aisle by fusing its storytelling with our universal appreciation for the natural world’s majesty. 

The result is an experience that truly conveys the power of faith, speaking to us in Agnostic sentiments even as it comes wrapped in the cloth of Catholicism. With this year’s anticipated release of THE WAY OF THE WIND, Malick’s take on the biblical passion of Christ, the director appears set to continue this intimate exploration of faith by venturing to its very heart. In this context, A HIDDEN LIFE is far more than just a warm-up; it precedes Malick’s forthcoming work as the first in a suggested diptych about the courageousness of self-sacrifice in the name of faith. With A HIDDEN LIFE in particular, Malick isn’t necessarily trying to convert us, or even to make us believe in a Judeo-Christian God; rather, he’s simply— quietly, viscerally — encouraging us to listen to our own higher callings. Whether that’s the teachings of a Christian god, another faith entirely, or even the non-secular edicts of moral principle, A HIDDEN LIFE suggests that we too are capable of transcending our inherent humanity and becoming a light to the world.

A HIDDEN LIFE is currently available on high-definition Blu Ray via 20th Century Home Entertainment. 


Written by: Terrence Malick

Produced by: Elisabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio

Director Of Photography: Jörg Widmer

Production Designer: Sebastian Krawinkel

Edited by: Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones

Music by: James Newton-Howard


  1. IMDB Trivia Page

2: https://theplaylist.net/fox-searchlight-hidden-life-malick-20190520/

3. Via Wikipedia:  Burlingame, Jon (December 6, 2019). “From “1917” to “Jojo Rabbit,” Composers of Some of the Year’s Top Scores Talk Shop”. Variety. Variety Media, LLC. Retrieved December 8, 2019.

4. Via Wikipedia: “Terrence Malick’s ‘A Hidden Life’ Gets Rare Vatican Screening”. The Hollywood Reporter. 5 December 2019.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s