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The Academy Awards of 2024 came and went in what was probably, production-wise, the smoothest and most efficient ceremony in memory. Even acceptance speeches were contained, and over all the evening lacked schmaltz and glitz. The only problem was, strangely, that there were not enough Oscars, meaning so many films were so good in so many ways many seemed eminently worthy of awards.

It’s been a long time coming.

A striking array of really good films such as these had not happened in a very long time. That point was made well, albeit inadvertently, a few days before the ceremony when two critics in The New York Times held forth on what actually were the “best” films in Oscar’s long history of getting things wrong. Last year’s pick, they argued should have been Top Gun: Maverick, an enjoyable enough film, but really? O help. No wonder this year stands out. Not often do great films–full of story-telling magic that journey into all sorts of weighty matters–get much notice, save perhaps for the magical 1970s. So it was especially heartening to see films with a full measure of enveloping story and moral seriousness fill the roster for Best Picture. Two films, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, ventured to where few dare to tread, as did, especially, two extraordinary German films, Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest. Frankly put, wow.

That said, it is also true that great films are for a variety of reasons often overlooked by critics and as well, emphatically, the Motion Picture Academy. A case in point is a film that arrived in December, 2019, just prior to the arrival of COVID, that has since proven eerily clairvoyant in completely unexpected ways. The tale of a World War II Austrian martyr perhaps seemed dated or quaint. These days that is not the case, and especially so for all sorts of religious folk searching for a path through dark times.

Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is the true story of obscure Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner), peasant farmers in the rural mountain village of St. Radegund. For refusing to swear fealty to Hitler and thereby conscription into his merciless combat machine, Jägerstätter was, in August, 1943, beheaded. It is a rare story, one that was almost lost. In the 1950s, American sociologist Gordon Zahn travelled to Germany to gather information for a book on the response of Roman Catholics to the predations of Hitlerism. At the end of an interview with one anti-fascistsurvivor, he asked if she knew of any others. The response was that she had heard of an Austrian fellow who’d died in prison. Zahn tracked down Jägerstätter’s widow Franziska, who not only confirmed the story of her husband but proceeded to hand over essays written before and during his imprisonment, as well as a trove of letters from her husband’s stints of military training and subsequent imprisonment for his refusal to “serve.” The result was Zahn’s 1964 In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter, a book that, coming as it did amid the Vietnam war, caused a stir, drawing the attention of such Roman Catholic luminaries as Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Before that, though, Jägerstätter’s legacy had been felt within Roman Catholicism, for Vatican II markedly broadened the Church’s views on political dissent.  In 2007, some 60 years after his death, Franz Jägerstätter was beatified in the Cathedral in Linz, drawing 5000 people, including his ninety-four-year-old widow (she died in 2013 at age 100).  

The fact that A Hidden Life was largely dismissed (though there were some spangling reviews), is all the more puzzling because it was written and directed by the fellow who is very probably the premier auteur of American cinema, namely Terrence Malick, a now eighty-year-old Texan who lives quietly in his adopted home of Austin (he has not given an interview since the 1970s). 

Three prominent features explain Malick’s prominence: one, his sumptuous “immersive” film style, two, his intellectual “seriousness” (he graduated summa cum laude in philosophy from Harvard), and three, as is now finally being realized, his profound renderings of the very toughest religious questions. Even though Malick tried hard not to use the term “God” in any substantive way until this last film, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, though not a great fan, concedes that Malick, throughout his work, seeks in“ranging over…places and experiences”—from the plains (four films) to Guadalcanal and Jamestown and Judea (his next)—to situate central characters within a “grand metaphysical design.” Malick is, according to Brody, “one of the few filmmakers—ever—to realize a style that matches such a transcendent goal.”

In 2011, Malick’s previous major film, The Tree of Life, a wrenching and visually stunning tale of growing up and early death, won cinema’s highest prize, the Cannes Film Festival’s much-coveted Palme D’Or.  And the rumor is that in 2019 A Hidden Life was a strong runner-up (jury rankings are never disclosed, save for the winner). Whatever the case, A Hidden Life, this true tale of utterly remarkable contemporary religious martyrdom, fell pretty much dead flat stateside. Like really, really flat.

More’s the pity for the churches, especially in an era of great contestation over just about everything. Rarely has there been a timelier film: its circumstance now replays inside and outside the church as part of the nation (especially the pious part), again beatifies a vicious would-be ruler. Hardly any film ever has so pointedly portrayed the enormous stakes in the contest with the darkness of a rapacious, solipsistic nihilism.  This collision—for that is what it is—between soul and state is harrowing. It is not harrowing in the usual sense of “what’s going to happen next,” for its likely ending is clear from the start. Rather, it is a matter of why and how the inmost self “knows,” suffers, and endures. It is a “testament,” to use a term that is perhaps only intelligible to church people (though that proposition may be highly problematic). After all, what is at stake is central to just about everything. 

Amid Franz’s wrestling with conscience, he travels to consult a celebrated painter of murals on the interiors of churches, a sequence that recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s portrait of a famed medieval icon painter in Andrei Rublev (1966). As the artist paints, he confesses to Franz that he is, in effect, a fancy conman, refraining from painting the “true Christ.” Rather, he paints “the tombs of the prophets,” passing over the glaring realities of ethical demand to proffer pietized comfort. Truth be told, the painter says, pew-goers “would have murdered those whom they now adore,” whether gods or martyrs. Moreover, “I paint all this suffering, and I don’t suffer myself. I make a living of it. What we do is just create sympathy. We create admirers. We don’t create followers.”  Someday he might “paint the true Christ,” concluding with an enigmatic, and mournful, “Not yet.” Franz does not have the luxury of a “someday,” for the question is neither conditional nor remote but starkly pressing. Soon the call to combat will arrive.

Words and images can in their terrible splendor suggest and sometimes even reveal depths of wonder and meaning, good and bad alike, and the film is full of pointed declarative heft. Town miller Trakl (Johannes Krisch) fears the fate of his family at the hands of the very people he has served, astonished that these earnest churchgoers do not know “evil when they see it.” And on it goes, only worsening, before and during Franz’s imprisonment and execution. 

Throughout Malick’s long career, he has been a spare literary craftsman. For all the philosophical inquiry into Malick, scholars have entirely neglected the clout of his writing and storytelling. More attention has fallen on his image-making, which is painterly—not for the sake of spectacle but, for lack of a better term, a revelatory “something,” presenting the mute facticity or “thereness” of a thoroughly splendorous world. This is a view embedded in Holy Writ and, remarkably, also in John Calvin, at least according to the eminent philosopher-novelist Marilynne Robinson. In Malick-world this reality intimates what many call, in an admittedly squishy word, “presence” or even “Presence,” a possibility that Malick meticulously conjures in all his films, opting to see the world “in a certain slant of light” (Emily Dickinson) that both beguiles and mystifies. This means that Malick is centrally interested in seeing things, and very ordinary things at that, and he pushes the camera to an always wondrous world that words and images do not readily conjure. It all is akin to Flannery O’Connor’s central character in The Violent Bear It Away (1955 ), a rigid, repressed, and very “progressive” schoolteacher who fiercely throttles his every emotion, lest in seeing something so ordinary as a starling crossing a street, he “fall to his knees in an act of idiot praise.”

This cinematic account of Jägerstätter and wife Franziska begins in beauty and ends in darkness. It is, all in all, an exceptional dramatization as much visual as verbal. The film centers on central human wrestling with evil and, crucially, wonder, at an expansive created world of enveloping beauty. The first third of the film happens among rugged mountains that seem to enfold the small farming village in which Jägerstätter grew up and returns to live, marry, and raise a family. The rest moves between arduous life in prison and on the farm, as the women left behind struggle to farm, feed themselves, and raise children (when the well runs dry amid drought, it is Franziska who descends to the bottom of the hole to dig still deeper into the muck). The village itself, save for a very few, turns ugly and mean, in effect exiling them within their own small town and church.

During the imprisonment scenes, Malick relies heavily on wrenching voiceovers from the letters between inmate and wife, a moving witness to the tenderness and profound intimacy of their marriage and belief. Amid the film’s grim subject matter, Malick pours bright sunlight through windows and doors. Perhaps light does shine even amid a darkness that might well overcome it. Countless frames of the film could well adorn living room walls, evoking Caravaggio, Vermeer, Eakins, and a host of others.  That said, as the ending makes clear, this world is a very hard place, something that Malick, stark realist that he is, pretty much assumes. 

A Hidden Life is flat-out arresting in multiple ways, a film that clarifies our own daunting time and the toll all manner of life perennially takes on everyone, from migrant poor to besotted privileged. Here, a “real life” peasant couple, devout and resolute, suffer an arduous journey that is at once exhilarating and formidable, ending in the darkest (or perhaps the brightest) of all places. Given this, and the film’s length of nearly three hours, it is perhaps best to watch in three sections, each roughly an hour long: home, prison, and trial. This testament—exultant and aching and always elegant—prepares the way for Malick’s next (and probably last) film, The Way of the Wind, a rendering of Jesus’ relationship with the very problematic Peter, premiering next Spring at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Roy Anker

Roy Anker is a retired professor of writing, literature, and film (Calvin University).  His most recent book is Beautiful Light: Religious Meaning in Film (2017).

6 Comments

  • Keith Mannes says:

    This is so beautifully written. Sounds like exactly what is needed right now, and we will try to find it and watch it. Thank you so much.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    A wonderful essay, Roy–your appreciation of Malick is deep, long, and beautifully articulated here. Thanks.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for the most beautiful review I have read in a long time, perhaps ever. We will find a way to watch this, and the next one…

  • Henry Baron says:

    Roy, I echo the others – I was impressed and exhilarated by the essay throughout and totally persuaded that this Malick film too, and especially so, is a must-see. Thanks!

  • Dennis Holtrop says:

    For any who may be interested: Axel Corti‘s 1971 film version of the Franz Jägerstätter story is available for free viewing on Youtube via this link: https://youtu.be/WDvW42iSeVs?si=w9VgzNpmo5nMzAXT

    Original German with English subtitles.

  • Greg Warsen says:

    As one of your former students, this piece gave me fond memories of your insights and artful unpacking of the powerful medium of film (aka art by committee). Thanks for this and one of my favorite undergraduate courses Dr. Anker.

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