For the Growing Good of the World: Terrence Malick’s "A Hidden Life"

How does Terrence Malick's new movie make sense of an Austrian man's unknown self-sacrifice in the face of evil?
Josh Cabrita
Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life is MUBI GO's Film of the Week of January 17, 2020.
A Hidden Life
In 1979, as a response to the confusion of friends and foes alike, Stanley Cavell published an enlarged edition to his cinematic ontology book The World Viewed with an addendum aptly and sardonically called More of the World Viewed. And in the preface to this new volume appeared a prescient reading of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Knowing full well (as a friend, mentor, and former professor of the director) that Malick had translated Martin Heiddeger’s The Essence of Reason years earlier, Cavell claimed that Days of Heaven evokes a particular passage from Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking?, which Malick “had done only… by having discovered… a fundamental fact about film’s photographic basis: that objects participate in the photographic presence of themselves; they participate in the recreation of themselves on film; they are essential in the making of their appearances.”
In the films Malick has made since Days of Heaven, this reading would only become more pertinent. Indeed, Cavell’s insistence that Malick’s form “acknowledges that objects are essential in the making of their own appearances” could very well describe the style of the three films the director would make three decades after More of the World Viewed was published. In To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and Song to Song (2017), Malick emphasizes the uncanniness of photography—the feeling that what is present is actually absent—to capture something of the experience of living in a materialistic world where reality matters less than its appearance. Engaging with our contemporary consumer culture from an emphatically anti-materialist perspective, these films express a belief not dissimilar from the prevailing one in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (which is the structuring device in Knight of Cups): “I perceive it is not best to covet things that are now, but to wait for things to come.”
One would suspect a similar thought motivates Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a Catholic conscientious objector who died at the hands of the Nazis, and whose life is dramatized in Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life. It begins in 1939, with the sounds of fighter planes disrupting life in Saint Radegund, a tightly knit agrarian community in Austria that operates seemingly independent of the modern world. In the wake of the Anschluss, Nazi rhetoric seeps into this pious village, and when Franz refuses to support the war effort, he and his family are outcast and ridiculed. Word of his opposition spreads, and official orders arrive for him to travel to Germany. Franz and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) know what awaits: he will be sent to prison, tried, and executed.
If the actions of extraordinary figures seem to transcend history altogether, the letters Franz and Fani exchange while the former is in prison strike us for the opposite reason—for their concision, their pragmatism, and even their banality: that is to say, for the indelible influence of the present on their writing. In voice-over, Fani speaks about tending to the farm in her husband’s absence while Franz bemoans his inability to support his family. She describes raising the children without a father as he pines for the diurnal patterns of his former existence. At no point do these correspondences indicate anything other than their function. It’s important to remember that these epistles—interpreted, adapted, and quoted from those of the historical figures—were once mere letters.
That is, until Gordon Zahn, while researching German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, encountered the story of an Austrian peasant who had been killed for refusing to fight for Hitler, and venerated them to the status of history. In 1964, Zahn published In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter, the first major book to acknowledge the martyr’s sacrifice. To Zahn, and anyone who has written extensively on Jägerstätter’s life, it is a remarkable, almost unbelievable fact that this average farmer, who received no more than a grade-school education in a one-room schoolhouse, could take such a resolute stance against the authorities of his day, and be willing to give his life for a conviction the Church understood as pointless, even narcissistic.
But anomalies are not miracles, and Franz’s actions are clearly informed by a cultural inheritance that would have been accessible to anyone living in the time and place that he did. Like many other Christians of his day, Franz believed that Church and State worked best together, and when governmental orders and Christian doctrines conflicted, the faithful’s allegiance was to their Lord. So even though it was customary for bishops to explain to their dioceses that sins committed by governments were not to be held against the citizens that carried out their misdeeds, Franz knew that he did not live under the authority of the Nazis, but under the dominion of Christ the King—a picture of the Christian God that was especially prominent after the First World War, when Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical declaring that global harmony could only be achieved once the nations submitted to the love, teachings, and laws of Jesus Christ.
If these theological beliefs of the historical Franz Jägerstätter are crucial to understanding his sacrifice, why has Malick obscured them in his retelling? Throughout A Hidden Life, Franz encounters neighbors, bishops, generals, lawyers, and judges who all ask different versions of the same question: why would he sacrifice his life and the well-being of his family simply because he refuses to pledge allegiance to Hitler? Whenever this question is posed, we leave the scene before Franz can offer a rebuttal. Time and again, he remains firm in his convictions without providing a fully formed reason for his sacrifice. The experience of watching the film becomes a speculative one: to determine why Franz opposes the Church’s advice; to understand what he expects to gain in return for his faith; and to determine how his actions could have any value if they are bound to leave him dead and unnoticed.
A cursory interpretation of the historical figure’s writings quickly dispels these mysteries. In one of Jägerstätter’s final letters, he writes that “it is a joy to be able to suffer for Jesus and our faith” because the “few days in this life” will be replaced by “thousands of days in eternity where we shall rejoice with God and our heavenly Mother.” It is clear from this passage and many others before and after it that Franz understood his sacrifice had next to no utility in and of itself. Rather, the value of his death was in the heavenly currency he would be rewarded. His sacrifice was not inherently good; it was good because God deemed it to be so (Euthyphro be damned).
Knowing Malick’s Christian background, we might consider this a fairly dogmatic portrayal of martyrdom—precisely the kind that Shusako Endo’s Silence, and Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of that novel, managed to complicate. Whereas Scorsese’s film chronicles its protagonist’s slow disillusionment with his faith, however, A Hidden Life never once entertains the thought that Franz’s actions are pointless. While Silence’s emotional force leads us to question the possibility that God is absent, and that such sacrifices are thus without merit, A Hidden Life rarely, if ever, considers that Franz’s martyrdom was without meaning. Rodrigues, the priest who parades dozens of Japanese Christians to their death in Silence, feels the incredible weight of their loss, made all the more acute by his wavering trust in God, but Franz remains resolute in his convictions to the end. In Silence, the ambiguity is whether the numerous deaths are significant. In A Hidden Life, the question is what makes Franz’s death so.
By shielding Franz’s inner life from the viewer, is Malick not evoking the idea that we are to know someone’s faith not by what they say, or what they claim to believe, but through their actions, which in turn attest to the strength given to them by a benevolent, ever-present and personal God? (Colossians 3:3: “For you have died [to this life], and your life has been hidden with Christ in God… Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”) If we read the film in this way, we would say that Malick obscures Franz’s theological beliefs only to amplify the mystery of that which gives him strength, only to lead us back to Christ, who, as the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians, is the life of his saints. It’s extremely tempting to view the film in these terms—as an elaboration on Malick’s metaphysics, as an orthodox retelling of Christian martyrology, and as an appeal to shift our gaze from the temporary suffering of the present towards the endless glories of eternity.
But I should pause, and instead of describing what A Hidden Life might be, begin to explain what it so emphatically is. Or better yet, allow the film to describe itself, in its own words, which are in fact the words of another. It is with a prefacing apology that I introduce this excerpt, so indescribably moving in the context of the film’s end. It comes from the last line of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and it assumes the authority of scripture even as it serves a purpose not altogether separable from philosophy. The film transforms before our very eyes, we along with it:
“...for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The profundity of the statement is inseparable from the confusion in it. Much of the writing about Jägerstätter assumes his life brought about little change (even the historical Jägerstätter would have been bewildered to consider his sacrifice otherwise). But what the Eliot quotation declares, without a hint of ambiguity, is that Franz’s unacknowledged sacrifice, and the unacknowledged sacrifices of all those like him, is not only significant in light of eternity but also in the world immanent to the act. The challenge, then, is to determine how Franz, who came and went without notice, could be said to have contributed to “the growing good of the world” if his death only seems to have meaning when seen from above.
It’s through these restrictions that we interpret the action: Without appealing to God, his perfectly good nature, or his moral commands, we are to find meaning in Franz’s death. We are to say that the indignities endured by Franz, Fani, and their family were worthwhile while also treating this world as though it were the only one that existed. And we are to conclude that even if God had not commanded Franz to lay down his life, even if his martyrdom had led to no ultimate reward, it would still, under all circumstances, have been the right thing to do.
The metaphysical “restrictions” are internal to the film itself. Gone are several formal approaches Malick has lately employed: the narration without motivation; the pre-cognitive utterances, directed as though towards God; and the spiralling montage, which turned everything into a symbol of itself. The colliding formats, the unscripted improvisations, the seemingly random flow of images —all which were meant to evoke the Wholly Other—have been superseded by a more tangible, even recognizable aesthetic framework (i.e. three-act structure, embodied characters, tangible conflict). Many have already remarked upon the fact that A Hidden Life more closely follows the patterns and expectations of a traditional narrative film. This is not an alteration of method, but of perspective. By replacing the abstract musings of his recent movies with narratively motivated voice-over, by expressing distrust of symbolic imagery, and by emphasizing the physical aspect of things (which is especially apparent in its unromantic depiction of agrarian labor), A Hidden Life eradicates the familiar markers of transcendence from Malick’s cinema, and with it, the feeling of obscurity skeptics regularly lambast.
One need not take these restrictions as contrary to orthodoxy or even the beliefs of the historical Jägerstätter, but one can understand them as a different collection of assumptions. One of the film’s most arresting scenes makes this clear: when Franz speaks to an elderly church painter who, by his own account, paints “a comfortable Christ,” one that “creates sympathy” in the spectator. But sympathy is synonymous with complacency, and complacency under these circumstances means cooperating with the Nazis. Take this as a statement of intent from a filmmaker often charged with the philosopher’s crime: of having one’s mind in the clouds when catastrophe lurks at the door. If his previous films allowed viewers to “look up to the heavens and dream,” this one shifts their gaze downwards—to the world imminently and dangerously at hand. A Hidden Life poses the most significant threat to the vocabulary many have used to talk about Malick’s films since Cavell first established it. The question now is how to reconstruct a language proper to the film, even while recognizing, as is usually the case with Malick, that our experience of the work will always overwhelm our retroactive analysis of it.
The first difference to reckon is the film’s distinct approach to time. In many of Malick’s previous works, but especially The Tree of Life, the carefully modulated speed of the montage led to an appreciation of an internal rhythm (call it the music of the spheres), which extends beyond the finite and back to the One who put it all into motion, a Prime Mover. (As Tarkovsky, Malick’s spiritual predecessor, once said: “The image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit.”) In A Hidden Life, however, each individual moment attests to its own presence; it points to nothing outside of itself. It is a complete, sealed-off unit of time. Working for the first time in two decades without Emanuel Lubezski (Jörg Widmer, the director’s longtime cameraman, stepped into the role of DOP), Malick here presents images with the rough edges of reality: the polish, the traditional elegance of his prior works, has been sacrificed in the name of mobility, reaction, and spontaneity—a beauty of the present.
If the time-pressure of the director’s previous films evoked an idea not dissimilar from traditional martyrologies (i.e. the finitude of this life is nothing in the face of eternity), A Hidden Life’s emphatic presentness ensures that no external time is added or implied. Malick’s film asks that we experience each individual moment not as though it lacked anything or as though the present needed to be justified in the face of any other thing, but with an awareness of the potential inherent to each lived moment. Dostoevsky’s Idiot articulates this approach to time when he describes the experience of an acquaintance who for twenty minutes, between the decree of his death and the deferral of his punishment, lived so absolutely, wasting neither minute nor second, until being granted the entire rest of his life. Did he reckon every future moment? Of course not. Living so tremendously may seem an impossible ideal, but it is one which Franz attests to: “When you give up the idea of surviving at any price, a new light floods in. Once you were in a rush, always short on time; now you have all you need.”
Finding eternity within the finite: as contradictory, even hokey, as this aphorism may sound, I take it to mean something specific. This phrase has been adapted from the conclusions drawn by Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics, dismissed in the philosopher’s day as a work of heretical madness but subsequently reclaimed as one of the pinnacles of 17th century rationalist philosophy. It is strange to bring up this notorious materialist, necessitarian, and atheist while discussing a film by Terrence Malick, but Spinoza’s metaphysical picture is wholly consistent with the film’s restricted perspective. Even more than that, it’s capable of accounting for the goodness of Franz’s sacrifice without appealing to anything outside of the imminent realm. (Another connection: George Eliot, who provides us with our structuring mystery, was the first to translate Ethics into English.)
To speak of heaven, divine rewards, or a transcendental realm is, for Spinoza, to speak of literal nothing. Everything exists necessarily, and exists necessarily in God (or Nature, a synonym in Spinoza’s terminology) because, as the greatest conceivable being, with an infinite number of attributes, he must contain all things pertaining to existence, including ourselves. Good and evil, morality and immorality, do not exist as transcendent absolutes; what is meant by these terms in Spinoza’s system is that things are good and bad according to our own limited perspective, as finite modes attempting to preserve in our being. Spinoza advocates for an ethic of self-improvement: the virtuous continually seek to abide in true principles, their mind containing a higher capacity for action than those who live according to false ones. (In philosophy-speak, the virtuous person contains more of God, or more perfection, than the non-virtuous person). But if existing more fully in God, or accruing more reality or perfection, is said to aid us in preserving in our being, is it not Franz’s oppressors who are to be counted among the virtuous, being the ones seemingly endowed with the most power to act?
Two responses from the film:
1. Whenever Franz encounters his inquisitors, he is invited to take a seat, but as he descends deeper and deeper into the Nazi prison system, where the pretensions of civility have all been but eliminated, the gesture is recast, with a guard pulling his chair out from underneath him—once, twice, and again. By this, Malick presents an understanding of a certain procedure of moral reasoning: that evil, when universalized (and what was the Nazi regime if not one in which all forms of treachery became natural law), ceases to be possible, for if we all lived in a world where the chair was always pulled out from under us, who would ever accept the invitation to sit? If reason would recommend such an action, it would recommend it to all people. And so reason would recommend, without qualification, that all forms of treachery be done in the name of preserving one’s being, thus ensuring the mutual destruction of all. This is absurd.
Thus, when someone acts in a way that is evil, they are acting according to a principle contrary to reason. And one’s capacity to act cannot be increased by acting according to a maxim that is false, for falsity is but a privation of knowledge, and denotes nothing positive in itself. It follows, then, that Franz’s oppressors cannot have a higher capacity to act because their actions stem from false principles.
2. If Franz’s oppressors act by principles which are false, thus curtailing their capacity to act, Franz actions are good, meaning they increase his capacity to act, because they stem from true principles. There are myriad expressions of goodness in A Hidden Life: Fani giving away vegetables when she barely has enough for herself; Franz donating his already meager ration to a ravenous stranger; an unknown woman aiding Fani when her cart topples over. But the one that sticks out in my mind, the one that contains within itself the totality of an ethic, is the startling moment where Franz, having just been sentenced to death, kneels down to pick up an umbrella he accidentally knocked over while being shuttled out of a shop by his handler. This moment startles less for the specific act (a common courtesy), but more for the thought it reveals: the virtuous person takes gains and losses of fortune with equanimity, understanding that no harm can be done to him, none of his perfection can be curtailed, if he follows his conscience towards that which is true, unchanging, and eternal.
The words of Spinoza are never heard in A Hidden Life. It wouldn’t surprise me if this talk of perfection, reality, or capacity for action never once factored into Malick’s thinking process while making the film. The reason I have erected this clumsy scaffold is to attempt to answer the mystery A Hidden Life presented to me, that is, not to take it on faith alone that Franz contributed to the growing good of the world, and instead to provide an account of how this can be deemed possible, and what propositions are required to explain this assertion. What was needed was a redemption of goodness in itself, not a transcendent, adjunct justification. Life had to be reclaimed, from within the confines of life itself. The aforementioned ambiguity of Franz’s motivations, the invitation to plumb the depths of his being, is all, ultimately, a red-herring. The life before you is sufficient: an addition of time will not entail an addition in perfection. One could exist ten lifetimes and have a more impoverished existence than Franz. This was the difference, therefore, between the martyr and all those who violently opposed him: he is the one that has existed so fully, so intensely, such that death was of little significance to him. The free man “thinks nothing less than of death.” Spinoza writes, “instead his wisdom is a meditation on life.”
Though he never wrote about art (and if he had, it would have likely been negative: images are illusions, directed at arousing our passions and clouding our judgement), we can easily extrapolate an aesthetic criteria from Spinoza’s moral theory, as movies, like all other external stimuli, are nothing if not affects. Those works which increase our capacity to act will be deemed good while those which diminish it will be considered bad. Implicit in this criterion is the notion that art cannot be sublimated under the umbrella of “ideology”; it is an object which presents itself to our senses, involving us in a symbiotic process of becoming.
Nowhere in A Hidden Life is this more acutely felt than with the film’s use of archival footage, much of it taken from Leni Rifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Here, there is no question as to what these images mean; their significance is their function. By presenting them with neither ironic detachment nor sincere condemnation, there is an attempt on Malick’s part to replicate the force these images might have had in their original context. They exert a power that, decades removed from these images’ presentation, still has an ability to increase or decrease our capacity to act. (I am loathe to put this point too bluntly, but I’d advise those skeptical of reading theory into text to consult the moment in which the archival footage, presented to the viewer as a neutral document, is reified to a scene in the film, propelling Nazi soldiers to their feet in exultation. These images don’t signify; they do.)
A Hidden Life creates an oppositional force to these images. Just as Franz’s actions are incalculably diffusive, driving his oppressors into confusion and, hence, thought, so the film shakes the spectator from being a passive receiver into an active thinker. In propaganda, or the paintings of Christ that create sympathy, or even The Tree of Life’s metaphysical montage, we are swept into the sublime. In the face of the unknowable, we bow down and worship. But with A Hidden Life, which recognizes how such passivity leads to complacency, a new form is required, one which takes us away from the Cavellian language that previously defined how we talk about the director’s work. This is the veritable shock of the Eliot quotation: it demands that we examine our previous assumptions about the film’s perspective, leading us  to provide an account of the goodness of Franz’s actions from within the imminent realm. As Spinoza says at the end of Ethics, “something that is found so rarely is bound to be hard. For if salvation were ready to hand and could be found without great effort, how could it come about that almost everyone neglects it?” A Hidden Life transforms us, but only if we care to notice. Its movement propels us from a lesser to a greater perfection.

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