A Hidden Life is much too beautiful. It takes place in a remote Austrian village high up in the Alps. Terrence Malick films it with dramatic, sweeping shots of the landscape – the high peaks often in the background, lush fields close-up. Yet the subject is not beautiful in any conventional way. The story centers on a farmer in Nazi Austria who acts in conscience, and it doesn’t go well.
But the extraordinary beauty matters, because for Malick, the overwhelming magnificence of the Earth stands always in contrast to the dreadful things human beings do with it. Over a black screen at the start of the picture, Franz the farmer (August Diehl) voices his hopes for a life away from worldly events.
But the movie’s first images come from Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Triumph of the Will, which pictures Hitler as the world’s savior. So, you know what’s coming for Franz. It’s 1939. Austria has already accepted enthusiastically the rule of the Nazis. Franz is drafted into the army and serves until after the Nazis take France. The German army then returned Austrian farmers to their lands – to serve the Nazis better. But after a while, they wanted the farmers back in the army and required them all to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Franz won’t do it.
A Hidden Life runs nearly three hours, so at a slow, unrelenting pace, the village changes from cooperative, graceful farmers into a hateful mob. It goes bit by bit. The postman on his bike zips by without speaking; next, villagers ignore Franz and his wife when they walk through the village, then soon the ignoring turns to nasty looks and turned backs. Franz is driven away from the community haying.
Franz is no activist; he barely even talks, but the film shows how in a society ruled by thugs, the unthinking mob mentality takes over. And it’s stunning to see how – again very slowly – the apparatus of the state moves into crush just one person acting in conscience.
The former friends and neighbors are just the vanguard. The rudeness, and then their occasional bullying is replaced by a trio of young men who wear their brown uniforms like licenses to throw their weight around. The uniforms are spotless, of course; these jerks, in hats too big for their heads, have never seen combat.
This is roughly 1942 or 1943, about three or four years into the Nazi war to take over the world. Actual German war art, made by artists who accompanied German troops, started out fresh and arrogant, like these boys, but by this time it mostly showed misery and despair. These boys are untouched by decency, vulnerability or experience. When Franz is finally sent to a series of prisons, the guards are either very young sadists or men too old for combat who look hollow-eyed and confused.
Franz is a saint. He shares food with hungry fellow prisoners; he takes the abuse silently with the kind of composed look in his eye that would make anyone of any humanity look into themselves to see their own cruelty, but these creeps are too locked into their own cultish stupidity to notice.
Franz asks nothing of anyone, even his wife. He lives entirely within his own conscience.
A Hidden Life shows once again that a despotic and cruel government cannot let one conscientious man alone. It might be contagious, and the movie leaves you to meditate on the tremendous power of one person holding true to his humanity, even if no one else knows of it.