A Terrible Freedom

Review by Jonathan Heaps

A Hidden Life
Dir. by Terence Malick
Prime Video, PG-13, $19.99

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Toward the end of A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s excellent new film about Franz Jägerstätter’s refusal to swear loyalty to Adolf Hitler, Jägerstätter (August Diel) prays in terms approximating Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd… It is the sort of dialogue any screenwriter might draft. Jägerstätter was a faithful Catholic. Pope Benedict XVI would beatify him in 2007. The psalm’s themes fit the case. Even those who do not know its biblical provenance might recognize the text. But as Malick’s trademark wide angles again and again fit A Hidden Life’s characters into the mountainous frame around the village of St. Radegund, it was Psalm 121 that caught in my mind.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

One needs a certain kind of catechetical formation to read such allusions, but A Hidden Life is so crowded with them, so drenched in poetic repetition of Christian symbol, that they prove as integral to Malick’s signature film-craft as the play of natural light, the close study of human faces and hands, or voice-over delivered in a near whisper.

There is a temptation to dismiss as cinematographic self-indulgence the way Malick lingers, even loiters on the mountains around Jägerstätter’s alpine valley. When storm clouds gather around the peaks right as the war’s persistence becomes evident, one might wave this away too as hackneyed foreshadowing. But when thunder peals and moral certainty sets into Franz’s features, for those with a modicum of Sunday schooling, both Sinai and the Transfiguration flood the imagination. We cannot avoid the point: God has spoken.

In another, more modern version of the Franz Jägerstätter story, the plot would center on the drama of decision, on the vacillations of mind that pave the path to a principled stand. But A Hidden Life eschews such novelistic conventions. Where Malick allows Jägerstätter to voice his misgivings about the German war effort, he seems to be on the hunt for language adequate to something already established inside. Jägerstätter will, even when shackled by the Nazis, speak of this something in terms of freedom. But the film portrays the intrinsic dignity of human freedom in rather un-modern terms as well. Malick, through Diehl’s lucid performance, show us Jägerstätter’s freedom in his unwillingness to do what is wrong and willingness to do whatever that requires. In this way, Malick’s film implies a thesis that, once perceived, is terribly hard to accept: God has arrived to help Franz and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), but not by relieving them of their terrible circumstances. Rather, God’s help consists in the freedom to do what love demands in the midst of them. Franz and Fani themselves only glimpse this truth around its edges.

That neither Franz nor Fani much deliberate over the fateful decision to reject Hitler does not prevent those around them from demanding explanation. These demands make up much of the dialogue in the film, in fact, and are delivered by characters who seem sketched in biblical style. We meet mid-century Teutonic proxies for Pharoah, for Job’s friends, for the devil in the wilderness, for Pontius Pilate. Eventually, Franz stops responding to them altogether. In case we did not recognize in Jägerstätter the figure of Christ and, through Christ, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, at one point Malick cuts from Franz, mute before his inquisitors, to Fani back on the farm. In a bucolic variation on the pietà, she comforts a family sheep across her lap while her sister takes the shears to it. Behold, Malick says in images, the Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world.

One of the film’s great strengths is the patient way it sits with the life that continues even as Franz’s mortality and Fani’s future hang in the balance. Malick permits us to feel with them the numb shock, the fear, the dread, the anger, the resentment, the surprising joy, the improbable levity, the fullness of living that persists even as the sword of Damocles overhangs. Prison walls cannot quench the spark of friendship. Chains cannot hinder quotidian acts of kindness. Grief cannot forestall repentance and reconciliation. Where the first half of A Hidden Life imposes a terrible knot of anxiety in the viewer’s stomach, the slower, occasionally frustrating second half provides space for it to unravel some and for the light of life to creep between its thick cords of doom. A Hidden Life is a long film — just shy of three hours — but I wonder if it could accomplish this feat without asking the audience to keep watch with the Jägerstätters through their Gethsemane hour.

Indeed, my only substantive complaint with the film might, in light of the running time, seem improbable: on one very important point, Malick rushed things a bit. I have in mind here the pain of loss that must have, for some season, swallowed the life of Fani Jägerstätter and her children. Fani is portrayed at least twice in the style of Mary, Undoer of Knots (a Marian devotion with roots in Austria), pulling at a tangle of yarn or clutching a snarl of heavy rope. When, in the aftermath of Franz’s condemnation, Fani espouses her hope in the general resurrection, I was left wondering how she had faced the knot martyrdom made of her life and her family’s. If I am reading Malick right and God’s help for the Jägerstätters was in the first instance freedom to follow Christ, what shape might we have found, had Malick shown us, that help taking in Fani’s grief?

Though, in fairness, the Bible gives some short shrift to Mary’s grief too.

Jonathan Heaps is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.


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