A Movie review of
The Hidden Life
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
(Rated PG-13, 2019)
This review contains SPOILERS for the film that tells the story of the
Austrian hero Franz Jägerstätter.
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In a well-known book by the theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, we hear about the distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. For Bonhoeffer, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.”1 Costly grace, on the other hand, gives us more than we could ever earn but also costs us everything we have to give: “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”2 Bonhoeffer himself paid for his faith with his life. He was hanged by the Nazis just weeks before the liberation of his camp by American soldiers. His remains have never been found. A Hidden Life pairs well with Bonhoeffer’s theology and story. It could be seen as an extended (three-hour-long!) meditation on the lifelong journey of martyrdom.
In A Hidden Life, we see the main character, Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer and family man living a modest life in the mountains of Austria, knock again and again at the door of martyrdom. Based on the true story of a Roman Catholic beatified martyr, Terrence Malick’s latest film shows us the steep price of Franz’s faithfulness to the end. Again and again, Franz is encouraged to recant his refusal to serve in the Nazi war effort. Franz is not a coward. He refuses because service requires an oath of allegiance to Hitler. His mother, his village, the Nazi officers, his local priest, and even his bishop urge Franz to take the path of least resistance and serve. In this regard, Malick’s film shares much with other contemporary biopics that show the struggles of an individual-with-a-cause standing against the world. Few movies, however, force us to sit with and feel the true cost of such moral bravery.
In this way, Franz’s story is a perfect subject for the director Malick, known as one of our best contemporary directors. Malick has made a career of deliberately paced meditations. His eye for beauty, evidenced in all his films, dwells here on the scenic countryside, the rhythms of agrarian life, the patient joys of fatherhood, and the delights of romantic love. It is these gifts that Franz is exchanging for his refusal to serve. What’s more, as the pressure on Franz escalates and his situation worsens, Malick gives us time with his family as they too pay their own costly price. Malick’s own spiritual sensibilities and religious ideas have been on display in other movies. The Tree of Life (2011) retells, in its own way, the story of creation, fall, and redemption. But A Hidden Life is his most explicitly Christian film. The Tree of Life dwells on the struggle between nature and grace. The way of nature is ultimately self-serving. The way of grace is the only way to preserve and perfect the beauty of created life. In his most recent film, Malick dwells on the true boundary between nature and grace: the cross.
At a key moment in the movie, when Franz is resolving his willingness to die, he passes a rustic crucifix, posted on a long, uphill pathway. The crucifix looks weathered and mostly neglected. The road ahead of Franz is long and difficult, requiring much. Repeatedly throughout the film, we see a bike messenger pass Franz’s country house. The bicyclist is always cruising downhill. The audience and the household are both waiting for the messenger to stop at the house and deliver Franz’s letter of conscription that will lead to his death. The messenger’s path and his job are relatively easy ones, requiring little. Surrounded by a village and a country that has taken the easy path, the film shows us, again and again, the pain and patience required on a martyr’s Via Dolorosa.
Together with the social pressure and great cost to his family, Franz also suffers from another line of attack, which gives the film its title. Numerous times Franz is told that his refusal to serve is not only deadly but also futile. His wife, in a moment of pain, warns Franz that “you can’t change the world. The world is stronger.” Even more importantly, Franz is patronizingly told that his bravery will be completely unseen. Religious figures, army officials, and his own mother deliver variations of the line, “You won’t change anything. No one will hear of you.” A humble farmer, Franz’s hidden life likely won’t have the same impact as Bonhoeffer’s more visible sacrifice. Yet he perseveres.
The fact that Franz Jägerstätter is now a beatified martyr, and that there is a movie about his story, obviously shows these warnings to be untrue, at least in this case. However, Malick’s animating idea in the movie is not that everything hidden will be greatly revealed in this world. In the hands of a lesser director, the film might conclude with some title cards that show Franz’s eventual acclaim. Rather, the film concludes with a quote from George Eliot that makes a different point: “[T]he growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Malick wants us to understand that quiet faithfulness can change the world, even if in small ways. Good, like evil, has a cumulative effect. The little things, even little lives, do matter.
Here, again, there’s a perfect fit between the subject of Malick’s film and his cinematic style. Malick’s camera has always cared as much about seemingly insignificant details as the plot, sometimes to the annoyance of audiences. This film spends as much time on the specifics of threshing wheat as it does on the more dramatic aspects of Franz’s arrest, trial, and execution. Malick’s cinematic vision has always suggested, perhaps, a naive optimism about creation in its natural state — the bucolic existence of Pocahontas, the innocent perfection of Jack’s mother in The Tree of Life, the natural beauty of the South Pacific island in The Thin Red Line (1998), quickly destroyed by manly warfare — but A Hidden Life is always keen to show the real struggle that is required for a life well-lived at all times. Like Adam, we see Franz toward the beginning of the film cutting grass with a scythe. Like Adam in the garden, he is alone. The work looks hard, but also good. Later, he is joined in the task with his wife, like Eve, who joins him in his toil to tend his garden and eliminate the weeds. Creaturely life in this film feels difficult, but also valuable. Malick shows us the beauty but also the struggle bound up in every square inch of creation.
Though the film concludes with Franz’s offscreen execution and the pain felt by his family, the tone is ultimately hopeful. In a small scene midway through the film, Franz speaks with one of his friends, a man who manages to keep his joy even in a Nazi prison. The friend reflects on what it will be like to experience the guillotine. The speech at first seems morbid but concludes with the sudden inbreaking of heavenly hope. Though the movie is focused on worldly joys and pains, it is shot through with a deep sense of another world: a deeper joy set before us that enables us, like Christ, to endure our own crosses. Its attention is downward on the little details of human life, but its hope is pointed where Malick’s camera is often looking in his films: upward. —Philip Tallon
Philip Tallon, PhD, is an assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University. He’s the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford, 2011) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (NY: Touchstone, 1995), 45.
- Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 45.