This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
It is hard to imagine what Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector from Austria who was executed for his refusal to pledge his allegiance to Hitler during The Second World War, had to go through. Bearing in mind that he had to sacrifice his large family’s (Jägerstätter had a wife and three daughters) interests and give his life for a cause that only a few people could truly understand, A Hidden Life (2019) is a heartbreaking watch of a kind.
Unsurprisingly, the latest film of Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of The Tree of Life (2011), is no less deep and thematically broad than his previous work. Like no one else, he tells the story of a man whose ideals and principles contradict with those of the contemporary power elite (the film covers the last five years of the character’s life, from 1939-43), with an unprecedented intimacy and huge respect to Jägerstätter’s legacy.
Within the almost three-hour-long project, Malick does not show any brutal or violent scenes (even the final execution happens behind the curtains), closely focusing on the main character’s relationship with his dearest wife Franziska and the agonising inner struggle both of them experience. It is important to stress that Malick makes two of them the lead characters of the story as if they constitute a whole one carrying the burden of moral resistance. It would be unmeasurably harder for Jägerstätter to stick to his principles if there is no strong supporting system represented by Franziska, wholeheartedly dedicated to him and never doubting his beliefs and his truth. Even though God constantly gives Franz strength and courage to continue the moral battle with evil, it is Franziska who does not let her husband break when everybody in their village, even the closest relatives and neighbours, turn against him.
With help of his directorial mastery and skillfulness, Malick expands a private story of silent rebellion onto a wider context and presents his understanding of such concepts as faith, fortitude, love, and loyalty. What is more, he does not just show the thorny path full of hardships Jägerstätter’s fate prepares for him. Instead, he uses that story to create a modern humanist manifesto. Using a lot of extra-wide shots of Austrian fields and hills, flowing camera movements, gentle editing and sequences of characters doing their household chores, he presents the idea that peace and war, calm and storm, always go side by side. Our mission as human beings is to stay afloat as long as we can without losing ourselves, our family, and our connection with the Divine.
‘I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord’ — these were Franz Jägerstätter’s very last words. In 2007 he was beatified by the Catholic Church.
By Ivan Dmitriev
Photograph: Fox Searchlight Pictures