IN TREE OF SMOKE (2007), Denis Johnson writes of a private who throws his helmet on top of a grenade, and lowers himself, “not rapidly, but with some reluctance.” Falling on a grenade is, of course, a brave thing to do, the bravest sacrifice that the private could make. But does he fall on the grenade out of a desire to be brave or to do good? Of course not. The thought doesn’t enter his mind; it doesn’t have time to. The suddenness of a grenade falling in front of the private dials in his attention on the object, and unthinking habit carries his tired body toward the explosive. It’s an interesting way to describe an example of courage, and it’s interesting because the private’s motives appear so courage-less. No doubt it can be immobilizing to stare sacrifice in the face. But, still, the private does. He’s thrown forward, making a choice few would ever make, falling on a grenade with the end of his life before his eyes — but without the speed and charge expected of such a sacrifice. Which only deepens the question: what kind of beliefs and feelings could lead one to put their life on the line, the most serious of moral commitments, and do so reluctantly?
This question of courage and of sacrifice — of what drives us to sacrifice our goals and projects — has gripped me since watching Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life (2019). At once a portrait of resistance and an exegesis on love, A Hidden Life interrogates who should sacrifice, what demands a sacrifice of us, and how we cope with sacrifice when it arrives, questions which take on special significance in the context of the film’s setting in World War II. The title and epithet come from George Eliot, who writes: “[For] the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic 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 spirit of the film is in testing the resolve that rests in those unvisited tombs. Malick wants to shed light on the courage that stands behind un-historic acts of sacrifice, ones which fail to stop an injustice and which couldn’t be expected to put a dent in it anyway.
Told mostly through a series of loving voice-overs between husband and wife, A Hidden Life follows and is based on the life of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector to the Third Reich who was beatified by the Vatican in 2007. Franz (played by August Diehl) is an Austrian peasant farmer. He lives with his beloved wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and their two young children. Their lives are simple. St. Radegund, the west Austrian village they live in, is remote and pleasant, far from the hustle of the modern millwork and disconnected from Hitler’s earlier invasion of the Rhine. Malick captures the innocence and richness of their home. They dance and they work; they play and they love. All four of them experience the uninterrupted Austrian countryside as a bounty of natural resources, a place of wonder and beauty. And their lives, while strenuous, are secure and peaceful — that is, until the world’s accidents make their kind of wealth a source of precarity.
Once the war is in full motion, Franz is called to serve under the Nazis. The forces that trap him in to participating in evil are beyond his control. He finds the war despicable and does not support Hitler, an opinion he dangerously voices in public, to the dismay of those around him. The town priest, installed by the Third Reich to replace the previous priest, refuses to condemn Hitler. Meanwhile, his countrymen scapegoat Hitler’s murder, claiming that a strong political will unfortunately is needed to overcome their national rut. “[Hitler] was not content to watch his nation in a state of collapse,” an older villager explains. Their blindness unnerves Franz. His faith tells him unequivocally to oppose Hitler, and so he does. But the scale of the war drowns out his voice. It’s a machine too large for an Austrian peasant farmer to interrupt, and it renders Franz’s protest inconsequential. Still, knowing that resisting the Third Reich will neither stop nor hurt the war effort — and knowing what will happen to him should he protest (which he does by refusing to hail Hitler) — Franz conscientiously objects to fighting for the Nazis, and he is sentenced to execution for doing so.
There isn’t an equivalent to the kind of film that Malick has made. He shoots wide and low, with remarkably frenetic camerawork. The cinematography is considerably toned down from his last trio of films, which Malick largely built around the handheld camera reacting to unplanned character movement and dialogue (see Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography in Knight of Cups and Song to Song). Nonetheless, he continues to use the camera to show the chaos of social life, which he contrasts with the visual splendor of the natural world. Here, in deep focus, the camera pushes and pulls toward mountains, barns, sheds, and fields. It’s fast and controlled — luscious even — and his cutting is crisp but smooth. There is a luminance and order to the Austrian pastoral that is lost through the performance of state violence, and Malick visually captures that noxiousness, that fracture.
There are clear resonances with Malick’s The Tree of Life, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line. Like The Tree of Life (2011), starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, A Hidden Life leans toward expansiveness, clocking in at 173 minutes. But it jettisons the visual effects that Malick uses in The Tree of Life to speculate about, for instance, the origin of evil in the universe and its corrupting entrance into human life. Instead, A Hidden Life never loses sight of the intimate, personal relationships that can make moral obligation so vexing, and it’s that singular, sustained focus which allows it to feel so grand. A Hidden Life also shares visual marks and echoes with Malick’s second film, Days of Heaven (1978), both of which are rooted in the countryside — the Texas Panhandle, and the Austrian pastoral — and which make use of stark, visual contrasts between the natural world and human mechanization to illustrate our destructive influence on the environment. Still, the emphasis is different. In Days of Heaven, shots of machines and locomotives run up against shots of deer and locust struggling to survive the downstream effects of human lust. While A Hidden Life does return to images of trains cutting through the landscape, interestingly shown on Super 8 film, its own shots of sheds, barns, and the pastoral work together to show a form of humanity that is threatened by the life that the German state guarantees. Finally, A Hidden Life returns to the deeper ethics of wartime that find a home in Malick’s World War II epic, The Thin Red Line (1998). But, where The Thin Red Line worries about how to live after committing unspeakable violence, A Hidden Life worries about doing unspeakable good at the cost of living — that is, about good that can’t be spoken, that won’t be spoken about, and that has no effect, but which still threatens life itself. For all of the spiritual overtones in Malick’s entire work, including in A Hidden Life, his unease here restricts itself more into the positive moral sphere than his other films have, and the result is a powerful one.
In the central moment of the film, after Franz is sentenced to execution, his lawyer tells him that he may be able to serve as a field medic and void his sentence. Still, Franz chooses not to. (Interestingly, Malick makes the fictionalized Franz turn down the offer to serve as a medic, while the actual Franz asked to be a medic and was ignored.) Serving as a medic also would require a pledge of loyalty to Hitler, which Franz cannot give. His lawyer pleads with him. He insists that the inconvenience of such a pledge will allow Franz to retrieve his freedom, to be free from imprisonment. “But I am free,” Franz says. Legal freedom can never add up to moral freedom — to the freedom of living under the laws of moral obligation and of a purified soul. “Do you think anyone outside of this room will hear your protest?” ask multiple military officers, in slight variations, up the chain of command. “Do you think you know more than we do?” No — he doesn’t know what his protest will do or how history will judge him — even if it will at all. That isn’t the point. “I don’t judge you,” Franz says. “But I can’t do what I believe is wrong.”
Can’t, or won’t? And why not? The bishop tells him it’s “better to suffer injustice than to do injustice”; Franziska tells her husband to “do what is right.” They both offer reasons justifying Franz’s choice to resist the Nazis, namely that one must not advance an injustice. Would that convince most of us to put our own lives on the line? Perhaps not, and for not altogether bad reasons. Imagine if Franz came home after serving as a field-medic. He could support and guide his children. He could organize a resistance to the Third Reich after returning with his newfound freedom. He has options that allow him to live, options with consequences that could produce considerable good in the future. Yet once Franz decides to resist the Third Reich’s efforts to recruit him into the war, he never seriously considers them. Some might cough at his obstinance; others might praise his resilience. Franz himself sees his sacrifice in different terms. He runs into a painter finishing a portrait of Christ, who tells him that the portrait is a false image, tailored to make the crowd comfortable rather than to let them see the true Christ. Franz, Malick implies, is unlike the crowd. In his devotion to faith, Franz has had the privilege of seeing, at least to a degree, the true image of Christ; and that sight shows that the reason Franz can’t do what he believes is wrong is because the moral scaffolding of his faith, of true faith, demands that he not.
Moral judgment is fallible, and Franz would be remiss if he didn’t question his own judgment to object to the war. He never asked to be the sacrificial lamb. It was an accident that he was put into a position in which moral obligation forced him to face the guillotine. We must ask him too: is it selfish to die on the cross, so to speak, for a cause? Is moral resistance an act of personal fulfillment that ignores the political realities of resistance? The voice-over letters between Franz and his wife are intimate and fragile, overwhelmed with concerns about a universe that permits evil and suffering and imposes severe penalties on courage. “Oh, my wife,” Franz says, “What has become of our country?” Their tone has an elliptical, mournful shape to it that’s reminiscent of Benjy Compson, Faulkner’s narrator in The Sound and the Fury, whose suffering is part of the architecture of his language. But Malick never dwells on the suffering and misfortune they experience. He shows Franz as he asks himself and Franziska how he is bound to fulfill his obligations and which obligations do in fact bind him, which is a different sort of animal than feeling reluctant to fulfill any obligation. This is the courage that Franz exercises in letting himself be guided by faith and obligation, both of which are lacking in the hearts of his compatriots.
The reason others lack faith and obligation is not because Franz possesses a special sort of courage, but because those around him refuse to do the most banal act possible — to think. Hannah Arendt profiled Adolf Eichmann, who managed the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps, as a man who was unexceptional in his politics and attitudes. He committed serious evil, but the evil that he did was “banal” in the sense that it came on the heels of what we would think of as normal beliefs and motivations — like deference to power, or a desire for career advancement — rather than, say, from an unadulterated hatred of Jews. Eichmann, Arendt claimed, lacked “intentions” in the sense that we think of them. He denied the activity of thought in favor of blind obedience. She highlights Eichmann’s claim to have followed Kant’s first categorical imperative, the supreme moral principle only to act from maxims that could be universally willed, in implementing the Final Solution. “This was outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible, since Kant’s moral philosophy is so closely bound up with man’s faculty of judgment, which rules out blind obedience,” she writes.
It was remarkable and frightening to Arendt how the Third Reich could make blind obedience the default state, and their success in purging thought had worrisome effects for our own moral makeup. As her profile suggests, where the path of least resistance is paved with evil — that is, where courage demands real, permanent sacrifice — a good man is hard to find. For without the workings of thought and judgment, courage becomes as rare and precious as a diamond. That is the issue with Denis Johnson’s private too, who falls on a grenade with some reluctance, in front of his superiors. He shows courage and does good, but behind his actions are an unthinking, blind obedience that just so happens here, thank god, to produce the right outcome.
Malick complicates that picture by showing how ordinary it can be to exercise courage in the face of injustice. The sacrifice that Franz makes is, at one and the same time, exceptional and banal. Most, including those who have misgivings, follow the Third Reich’s orders. Even the local clergy bends its faith to fit Hitler’s vision. For that reason, standing on top of faith and moral obligation reveals a courage that most are not willing to call forward, making Franz’s sacrifice the exception to the rule. At the same time, there’s no “special” trait or character or extra variable to the courage he exercises. Franz’s beliefs and feelings are no different from the ones most of us have. Dying for a cause is not on his list of demands. He wants to lead a good, simple life. He wants to see his children — to be there for them and to be there for his wife and to live the love that he feels. It’s those desires that feed his spirit, especially while imprisoned. But, unlike the private and Eichmann, Franz is guided by the activity of thought. Not by thoughts belonging to genius or heroism, but instead by the simplest, most accessible moral thought possible, that participating in the killing of innocent people is wrong.
That thought is as public and sharable as it gets. What Malick suggests is that we all have it in us to make the same judgment and sacrifice that Franz makes, and, in fact, we often do, in how any response to moral obligation requires courage. It’s in this sense that his courage is banal. Franz’s decision to be led by one’s own beliefs — by truth and obligation — is dangerous and remarkable, for sure. Yet, once one has chosen to be led by moral judgment, the courage that emerges is not like finding a diamond in the rough but instead like searching for water in a plentiful well. “If God gives us free will,” Franz says to the bishop, “We’re responsible for what we do.” The courage of taking moral responsibility belongs to the courage of making moral judgments. It springs forth from an existential need to be whole, to be integrated, and to be, once and for all, human.
Franz’s sacrifice may not be satisfying for those who are searching for solutions to our own times. In the hands of any other filmmaker, A Hidden Life would be a political film, since resisting the re-emergence of fascistic thought matters now as it did then, and one must think of the strategies of resistance to defeat it. But discovering parallels to the Trump era and the European situation proves too shallow. While it’s tempting to write our politics into A Hidden Life, it would be a mistake. Finding ways to live well and to secure integrity are important in politically difficult times such as our own, but they drill far deeper than the forces that led to Trump and the nativist swing in Europe. A Hidden Life is focused on the desire to do good, to live well, and to be one, and Malick is not the kind of filmmaker to be paralyzed by the present. He repeatedly asks: what have we done to ruin this gift of a world, and what will be needed from each of us to recover it? This penetrating search into the universal nature of courage and sacrifice, rather than the fickle appearance of it in carcinogenic times, makes A Hidden Life special. It gives it its depth and its permanence.