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A Hidden Life serves as a masterclass for those aspects of filmmaking in which Terrance Malick excels. His meditative perspective, eye for gorgeous camera work, and philosophical bent are all on display in this larger than life movie about a righteous man trapped in an unjust world.
Set in World War II-era Austria, the story follows Franz (August Diehl), a farmer in the Alps who must deal with his country’s participation in the war and fealty to Adolph Hitler. His wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) lives and works right along side him, and their love showcases one of Malick’s strengths. His ability to depict two lovers completely enraptured with each other is unparalleled. Several scenes are reminiscent of The Thin Red Line with its flashbacks to Pvt. Bell and his girl. While that romance ended on a stringently sour note, this one is is pure as the driven Austrian snow.
Much of the movie takes place at their farm, a place of hard work and honest living. When Franz goes off to train as a soldier, Franziska is left with her sister, his mother, and the kids. His return is one of the most painfully joyous events ever captured on film. Before long, however, they realize the Nazis aren’t going anywhere, and getting on the wrong side of history is the safe and secure choice.
Franz knows early on he can’t “Heil Hitler” his neighbors, and this puts him and his family on the outs with the entire village. He finds sympathy in his priest (Michael Nyqvist) but not much else. Soon, he’s called up to serve in the war and has to face the music.
Even knowing the consequence of his choice, Franz is unwavering throughout. The action begins to oscillate between various prisons and the homestead once again left to Franziska’s determined will to survive. It’s a stark juxtaposition that is at various points achingly beautiful and miserably sad.
The film’s title comes from a quote by George Eliot:
This movie will be seen within our current context, and right so, but it is far more about the intrinsic clash between doing the right thing and staying out of the gnashing teeth of institutions. Over and over Franz is reminded that his small action will have no consequence to the larger world, and a sound reasoning is laid out for self preservation over martyrdom. It is the very fact of a moral choice’s irrationality that makes it all the more powerful and important.
At almost three hours in length, A Hidden Life is a significant commitment of time and attention, something modern life siphons away at every instance. With the subject matter at hand, and the masterful way in which it is told, maybe that sort of dedication is just what we need to fully sit with the hardest of hard questions asked in the film:
“If our leaders, if they’re evil, what does one do?”
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