Terrance Malick’s new film A Hidden Life could well be a film version of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. There is much to unpack in this film, which is based on the true story of a young Austrian couple and their three young girls living a simple but hardworking farm and village life in the mountains and valleys of Austria during World War II.
Franz Jägerstätter, played by August Diehl, is conscripted early in the war. Returning home to his wife, Fani, (Valerie Pachner) Franz is disillusioned by national socialism and particularly the Reich’s treatment of the marginalized. As the war wears on and re-conscription looms, Franz becomes increasingly convicted that God is calling him to stand up against this evil. As the townsfolk become more and more complicit, the couple’s growing inner turmoil is seen as a judgment on the town. Franz and Fani’s deep love for each other and their children carry them through gut-wrenching decision making. The layers and relationships are complex as Franz and Fani refuse to reciprocate the hatred shown to them and their children.
The cinematography is breathtaking and sumptuous, ominous and threatening. Creation is both nurturing and groaning as the story unfolds. Repeated shots of the church tower at the center of the village, the frequent tolling of the bells and the weakness of the clergy highlight the church’s culpability to the evil of the empire. The conversations are sparse, made unnecessary by the strong nonverbal acting. There are so many small roles in the film fleshed out as fully realized characters.
Malick’s three-hour film studies what a depth of conviction looks like in the face of an evil empire. It is a prophetic challenge to the injustices the church might be turning its face from today as we enter the second decade of this century.
Franz Jägerstätter was beatified as a martyr by the Catholic Church in 2007. (Fox Searchlight)