Through the story of a farmer who refuses to swear allegiance to Hitler, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life reckons with the horrors of the Nazi regime in a quiet, powerful way. By Christos Tsiolkas.
A Hidden Life
How do you represent historical evil, and is it ever possible to do it through fiction? No series of events has seen that question more seriously critiqued and interrogated than when it comes to filmic representation of Nazi atrocities and, in particular, the Holocaust. Many intellectuals, from the German refugee Theodor Adorno to the Australian historian Inga Clendinnen, have argued urgently, eloquently, that there is a point where fiction and poetry have to remain silent. We have to allow documentary to do the work of conveying the scale and obscenity of terror. Though I have for a long time been challenged by such understandings, and though I have sympathy and respect for the moral righteousness of such positions, I think there are film fictions that can bear witness.
A recent example is László Nemes’s Son of Saul, which tells the story of a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz who believes he has come across his son’s body in the gas chamber and who attempts to find a way to give the dead child the burial demanded by his Jewish faith. Son of Saul deliberately eschews exposition and the long shot. Unlike most Hollywood Holocaust films, it doesn’t reconstruct the death camps. We spend most of the film in extreme close-up, peering over the protagonist’s shoulders, with violence and death and anguish occurring just outside the frame. We hear hell rather than see it. It is an acknowledgement that the fictional image can’t equal the devastation of real evil.
In his new film, A Hidden Life, director Terrence Malick brings that same moral gravity to the responsibility of making art that responds to history. The film is based on the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant farmer who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and was imprisoned and executed for being a conscientious objector. A remorseful Catholic Church beatified Jägerstätter in 2007 but A Hidden Life isn’t interested in his saintliness. The film is long, running nearly three hours, and it is structured in three overlapping but distinct acts. In the first hour we see Franz and his young family on their farm, in an idyllic village in the Alps, where work and pleasure are equally dependent on the seasons. The middle section details his imprisonment and trial, and the majestic last act is a moving requiem detailing his preparation for and submission to death.
Integral to Malick’s poetics as a filmmaker is a deliberately disruptive editing that utilises jump cuts, flashbacks and flashforwards not only to accentuate Franz’s acceptance of his fate but also to constantly return us to the rhythms and beauty of the natural world that undergird his faith. What anchors the narrative – and again this is intrinsic to Malick’s sensibility as a filmmaker – is a series of voiceovers based on actual letters that Franz and his wife, Fani, sent to each other when he was imprisoned in Germany. The voiceover, delivered by August Diehl and Valerie Pachner, who play Franz and Fani, always foregrounds the couple’s deep love for one another, which is both familial and deeply erotic. This sensuality is mirrored in Fani’s recitation of the labours and joys of her work as a mother and farm worker. It is as if in reminding her husband of the cycle of sowing, harvesting and feasting, she is offering him the means to transcend the squalor and violence of prison.
Malick has for a long time now held a uniquely iconic position in North American cinema. His commitment to a mise en scène that resists the linear and expositional in favour of the poetic and the fragmentary, and his philosophical and political themes – the ethical obligation of pacifism in this film and in The Thin Red Line; working-class and rural life in Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life and, again, in A Hidden Life; the recognition of colonial violence as fundamental to the establishment of the American project in The New World – place him firmly in a tradition of experimental, left-leaning cinema. But his ability to attract famous actors for even the most obtuse of his works, as well as the clear thread of Christian-inflected theism that has run through his films since The Thin Red Line, means he can’t be comfortably slotted within the mainstream or the avant-garde.
I consider Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World three of the greatest works in the history of cinema. But Knight of Cups and Song to Song – Malick’s two most recent films before A Hidden Life – were meandering and overlong; they felt like the works of an artist flailing around, trying to discover meaning and purpose by shooting as much footage as he could and then hoping it would all come together in the editing room. The result, unfortunately in both instances, is a pretentious mess. Malick is not an intuitive storyteller and so perhaps he needs his work to be grounded in the historical for it to resonate with us as an audience. These two films were also set in the contemporary urban world and so didn’t allow him to exploit one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker: his ability to make the natural world as central a character as any of his protagonists. That is truly the most spiritually transcendent aspect of his entire oeuvre. That being said, I thought his To the Wonder, which was also set in the here and now, masterful and eloquent. But that film prioritised the simple over the grandiose, and no matter how tentative its structure, we sensed the director’s command of his material.
A Hidden Life has simplicity embedded in its story, that of a peasant committed to not selling his soul, no matter the obstacles placed in his way; and it also has the gift of Franz’s and Fani’s letters to each other. Reminiscent of the bare yet lyrical language of Linda Manz’s narration in Days of Heaven, the epistolary text forms the backbone to the film and makes us understand the arduous heroism of Fani’s support of her husband, a support that makes her a pariah in their village. Diehl and Pachner are outstanding as performers in this movie, particularly when Malick’s method of directing doesn’t allow for long sustained takes that let actors dominate their scenes. Their eloquence is expressed instead through silence, in the casual gesture and in the beauty of their narration.
Malick has sometimes been criticised for a promiscuous use of name actors, who often are limited to one or two scenes or a few lines in his movies. But in A Hidden Life he uses actors such as Bruno Ganz, Maria Simon, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alexander Fehling and Tobias Moretti for the mythical resonance we associate with their bodies and stature. Ganz’s lined and tragic face and Simon’s earthbound physicality, and particularly Moretti as a conflicted yet honourable priest, are as much a part of the natural world that Franz and Fani inhabit as the mountain peaks, the rivers and streams, the fields and forests. I think A Hidden Life is sublimely acted.
This is a mature work. It assumes we enter the cinema knowing history and knowing the tragic resonances of the past. From time to time, there are abrupt cuts to documentary footage of Hitler and the triumph of the Anschluss. The Holocaust is never mentioned in A Hidden Life, but its shadow is cast throughout this story of a Catholic peasant. Malick contemplates evil, but the film never indulges in the understandable but too easy and too convenient myth that humans are irredeemable. This is a film that requires patience but I want to urge readers to see it on the big screen if they can. I think it a beautiful, quiet and powerful film.
THEATRE The Importance of Being Earnest
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, February 14—March 8
MUSICAL Bran Nue Dae
The Regal Theatre, Perth, until February 15
CULTURE Adelaide Fringe
Venues throughout Adelaide, February 14—March 15
QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, February 12-15
Tarrawarra, Victoria, February 14-16
INSTALLATION Mikala Dwyer: Earthcraft 2020
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until March 14
THEATRE Romeo and Juliet
Old Government House, Sydney, until February 23
MUSICAL Shake ‘n’ Blake
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, February 11-23
VISUAL ART Sparks
Fox Galleries, Melbourne, until March 4
State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Perth, February 12-16
MUSIC Bartok in Contrast
Sydney Opera House, February 8
Newcastle Art Gallery, February 9
Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, until February 9
Venues throughout Melbourne, until February 9
FESTIVAL St Kilda Festival
Venues throughout St Kilda, Melbourne, until February 9
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 8, 2020 as "Resisting the scourge".
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