We lived above the clouds.
With notoriously long post-production periods due to his uniquely poetic editing style, Terrence Malick‘s three-hour WWII romance A Hidden Life may have actually benefited from its three-year delay as far as thematic relevance to current events is concerned. As a rising tide of fascistic totalitarianism takes hold of world governments (including partisan blindness in the United States), a rarely told story like that of conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter becomes more important than ever. While it might have been lost in 2016’s shuffle, seeing it now opposite a backdrop of indignant politicians refusing to recognize the danger of their complicity to corruption, xenophobia, and oppression is fate. This is a moment wherein someone’s courage to stand against his/her peers can expose the group’s failure to put humanity above fear.
Community leaders, jailers, and Nazis alike are constantly asking Franz (August Diehl) if he believes his refusal to swear an oath to Adolf Hitler in 1943 will affect the war’s outcome. He never answers because that’s not why he won’t betray his devout Catholic morality (despite his priest explaining that God knows the difference between our words and our heart). His stance is greater than the Third Reich. It’s greater than him. The Nazis can hide Franz in prisons and let his neighbors aggressively rebuke his wife Franziska “Fani” (Valerie Pachner) for having a “traitor” as a husband, but he won’t break. His love will sustain him and his protest will have an affect—maybe not during his lifetime, but hopefully in hindsight with today’s disturbingly familiar events.
The power of Franz’s story therefore lies in his ability to separate himself from Germany’s nationalistic trend as vocalized by his hometown mayor (Karl Markovics). He is a man who goes through military training and is more than willing to fight for the safety of Austria if that’s what he’s asked to do. This war is about conquering, though. It’s about killing. Franz knows what “Heil, Hitler” means beyond its presumed patriotism and he’s drawn his line. Holding firm won’t be easy when faced with the reality that his wife and three daughters are likely to be left without him as potential execution looms, but he has a strong enough spiritual foundation to maintain his balance during this internal struggle. Franziska’s unwavering support through correspondence helps bolster it.
These letters (as collected by Jägerstätter biographer Erna Putz) become the driving force behind Malick’s script with almost two-thirds of A Hidden Life‘s runtime using them as narration. The first hour depicts Franz and Fani’s marriage with its deep reservoir of love ensuring the hard work accomplished on their farm is never in vain. We meet their stalwart allies (Maria Simon as Fani’s sister Resie, Tobias Moretti as the family priest, and Johannes Krisch as an unnamed miller) as well as the locals who soon turn on them for Franz’s so-called treasonous views. Joyous reprieves become replaced by inexcusable slights as we witness the tactics Hitler utilized to control his population by fueling prejudice and alienating (soon eradicating) dissenters. After Franz’s arrest, writing becomes all they have left.
With their heartfelt and measured words come brief vignettes depicting their difficulties—physically and emotionally. Fani finds herself on an island alone as workers (besides Resie) avoid her family’s presence. Franz faces abuse by prison guards alongside a perpetual sense of dread created by the presence of a top hat-wearing executioner. They each speak about what’s happening and lament about what they miss as Malick’s camera soars through the sky with freedom’s beauty and fish-eyes up-close upon claustrophobic sorrow. People want to know what made Franz so stubborn, blaming Fani as the reason he would embrace this notion that God wasn’t guiding the Führer’s actions as His own. Never do they think to look inwards and discover how it’s they who have changed. They’ve forsaken God.
We know it, though, since the film doesn’t confuse the actions of those against Fani as misinterpretation. It won’t cross the line so many cross today to say the Nazis had a point. No, everyone scowling at Franz’s children or defaming him to his wife is firmly in the wrong. You could even extend that umbrella to those who are complicit via silence too. Look at Bishop Fliessen’s (Michael Nyqvist in what now proves his final role) fear in pushing Franz out his door with words akin to “Do whatever Hitler wants.” Where Moretti’s priest can applaud his parishioner’s code while still trying to save him in a way that won’t compromise his heart, Fliessen only worries about his own potential demise born from misspeaking to a spy.
Good guys and bad are thus very clearly separated on-screen even if the latter aren’t necessarily pulling any triggers. There’s a point where you must decide which side you’re on and realize there can be no gray area. You either stare Fani down to bar her entry into the town church before stealing her beets without a shred of guilt or you give her a helping hand when her cart breaks and spills potatoes across the street. This couple has been an integral part of their community whether by growing food or providing compassion (Malick never lets Franz pass a fallen object without putting it back in place to prove the smallest deeds don’t go unnoticed). To suddenly abandon them is to expose your flaws rather than theirs.
Jörg Widmer‘s camera misses nothing and James Newton Howard‘s score (interwoven with enough established classical tracks to disqualify it from Oscars contention) lends a delicate, melancholic propulsion that retains a sense of hope regardless of the suffering on display. That optimism in the face or horror also exists in Diehl and Pachner’s exquisite performances. Whether their inability to be in close proximity without sharing a smile (if not kiss) or the unwavering love and support expressed through their letters despite a distance that isn’t getting any smaller, their mere existence portrays a belief that Heaven will supply the setting for a much-deserved reunion once their piously noble lives have ended. Hitler can let his ego destroy a continent, but he will not break the Jägerstätters’ spirit.
It’s funny to hear Malick admit to wanting a more linear narrative structure here since the result is as esoteric and emotive as anything he’s done. While we do move along a straight line from Franz and Fani reminiscing about the day they met until their final goodbye, the path forward remains a river of atmospheric currents condensing weeks into a few indelible expressions and feelings into a few profoundly composed sentences. We’re presented with two parallel journeys marked by suffering and yet both characters only have to read the other’s words to stand back up and know it isn’t for naught. As is spoken during the film: it’s “better to suffer injustice than to do it.” Nobody’s happiness should ever be contingent upon another’s torment.
courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures