A Hidden Life ★★★★½

The faults of A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick's latest film, are in a very specific way integral to its perspective and the characters to which it hues most closely. Which is to say, any political or ideological deficiencies detected are intrinsic to the religious worldview it brings to life. Even a cursory look at other ostensible Christian martyrs of the Nazi period—most notably, at least for this lapsed Protestant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—reveal in their assorted writings (e.g. Bonhoeffer's 'Letters and Papers from Prison') a dearth in references to Ashkenazi Jews and their extermination under the Nazi regime, among other oversights. Further, the seeming banality of this film's interest (i.e. that of Franz Jägerstätter's unwillingness to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler) was a live political and theological dilemma for believers in the Germanic regions prior to and during World War II. The matter was perhaps most famously documented in the Karl Barth-penned Barmen Declaration of 1934, which outlined the manner of the Confessing Church's disagreement with churches that cowered to or felt sympathy with the Nazis. As with Jägerstätter, the key point of contention in that document was, of course, the swearing of fealty to Hitler as well as Christ. Were one so inclined—and I am so inclined—it would be quite simple and correct to read the entirity of this situation (from the Barmen Declaration to Jägerstätter) as demonstrative of an immense political failure of dominant Christian doctrine and praxis, at both this time in Germany and, indeed, now. The inadequacy of Christian analysis and comprehension of Nazism and its allure, the paucity of its theological terms to match and compete with the situation is all to obvious and should be held in mind—even as, inevitably, most viewers (particularly religiously inclined ones) will likely not do so. Yet, this is a failure known to German churches of the time—call it apocryphal, as I can't source it, but views held among German Christians following the war were said to observe and lament that had believers resisted Hitler, in the refusal to swear oaths and the like, the nation could not have been mobilised towards fascist ends. Of course it was, and Christians at the time, at least in certain circles, knew this all too well.

I will go out on a limb and assume that Franz Jägerstätter was not a developed theological thinker, and if he was Malick opts not to present this acumin. But regardless and, indeed, in spite of the fact that he appears to lack developed Communist consciousness and never deigned to defect to the Soviets and join the Red Army, I find it quite remarkable that this man made a political act—one that from its very outset all but ensured his death—even if it was made on the basis of a highly theological rationale that Malick never truly develops and, perhaps, Jägerstätter never rigorously comprehended (i.e. the film's interrogations are notable for Jägerstätter's inability or unwillingness to articulate what undergirds his decision). Yet, for all that, the manner in which Malick is alive to the toxicity of Nazism even among the people of Radegund is notable. The film's images and cutting are incisive and exacting in slowly degrading the nature of the place, and in the end condemning it, as seething resentment and accusations of treachery are levied upon the Jägerstätters on account of Franz's decision. Indeed, I'm equally drawn to the ways in which the characters' words give lie to their reality or, maybe better, attack the situation itself—Franz will speak of finding freedom followed by images of torture and his utter despair; Franziska expresses continued warmth toward Radegund while the viewer can only see heinous attacks and ostracisation. The schema followed is one that finds honesty and liberation in a tandem of dialectics that simultaneously challenge emotion and image with their respective opposites. Should such a process be deemed insufficient due to a political or ideological disagreement then that is fine and fair—but it is also not this film. The religious outlook that undergirds it is its own—adptating, wrestling, and critiquing its historically and ideologically particular moment with bravery and in failure. The Christianity on display was insufficient in countering Nazism, as was the entire ecclesiological edifice of the time—yet, on its own terms, Jägerstätter's life concretely opposed a world historical disaster in all its insufficiency. Whether Malick is or is not aware of this complexity is irrelevant (though, honestly, please, of course he is), the film speaks in Jägerstätter's silence—in fields, in hills, and the sound of church bells his life condemns.

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