‘A Hidden Life’ and What It Takes to Be a Good Person
Terrence Malick isn’t out to change our minds. He’s trying to change our hearts.
Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life, tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, conscientious objector to the Third Reich. Franz lived in a farming village in Austria, had a wife and three daughters, and was killed for his refusal to cooperate with the Nazi regime. The film reveals the process by which Franz developed and held his position, and the ways in which his resistance impacted his family, friends, and even his enemies.
For anyone serious about enriching their interior life, this movie is an overflowing treasure chest. The work of becoming a good person — a person of integrity, like Franz — is done mostly in secret. It takes place in decisions and actions that few, if any, ever see. In A Hidden Life, Malick shows us a vision of what such goodness looks like — what it costs, and what it gives us in return: freedom.
That kind of vision and freedom is punished because it is dangerous — it overturns the logic of power and control by which the world runs. Though his decision makes no sense to almost everyone else, Franz clings to what is right and will not let go of it. This imprisons his body, but liberates his spirit, and because he sees his life against the horizon of eternity, he holds fast and endures.
So, go see this film. Malick made it to give us the resources we need to live with integrity. There are just a few things you should know before you go.
How to watch a Terrence Malick film
Look, this movie is three hours long. That alone should caution us that it is not a typical popcorn flick. Malick films are notorious for confusing viewers — people expecting to see the same kind of movie as Avengers or Star Wars end up walking out or demanding a refund.
Malick isn’t interested in entertaining us. He wants to create a vision with us — he expects us to think in this film, so his methods of storytelling are different. He’s not going to use plot and character to string our attention along. He treats us like adults — he uses beauty and voice-overs and lingering panoramas to inspire reflection.
The three-hour length is intentional. Malick is showing us how Franz formed his conscience, and in the process — as we think and feel with Franz in his daily life in a small village in the Alps — our consciences are being formed as well. We see the small quiet moments with his family. We hear the drunken tirades of the town’s mayor over beers in the square. We hear the distinctive sound of a scythe harvesting grain. And it all gives us time to think, to contemplate.
So, don’t go to this movie when you’re tired. Don’t go after a big meal. It’s going to ask something of you — be ready to give it.
What you should notice in A Hidden Life
If you are ready to think — and more importantly, feel — along with Franz in this film, you’ll notice some distinctive habits and dispositions that allowed him to live with such integrity.
Gratitude: Franz notices the green grass when he’s in prison, and also notices that he notices it. He wouldn’t have paid attention to it in his normal life, but here he sees it and realizes he needs it. Throughout the film, Franz drinks in moments of quiet joy. He sees life as a gift and is grateful for it. Life is not something to grasp and wrangle to his own ends — he sees his life as part of a larger whole that commands his attention and respect and gratitude.
Beauty: The Alps are a stunning backdrop for this film. It really feels like a retreat to spend three hours on this small mountain farm. That beauty is an important signifier in this story — at a number of points, we join Franz and his wife taking in the grandeur of the rocky peaks and green valleys. The beauty of the natural landscape is imposing and austere, and because they shape their lives around the natural rhythms of the world, they recognize that their lives are passing. The eternal is always before them, and it helps them see what is important in the here-and-now.
Love and joy: Family life in the Jägerstätter household is not without hardship and squabbles and the mundane. But there is a lightness to their family life, too. Franz and his wife are of one mind and heart. Though his wife struggles with Franz’s decision, her love for him never wavers. And that love carries Franz through his trials. One of the most amazing feats of this film is that it invites us to feel how he relies on that love and the memory of the joy of family life to face death with courage.
Invest in your interior life
Franz is a farmer, and he cultivates his interior life with as much diligence as he does his field. They both take real work. In the field, he gets his hands dirty; he puts his back into harvesting; he sweats as he chops wood. In his interior life, he prays; he listens; he pays attention. Those practices don’t come easily — they require diligence and discipline. But they change who he is.
We see this when Franz is in jail. He is surrounded by men who do not have the interior resources to weather the violence of prison — and I’m talking about both inmates and guards. Some of the prisoners navigate their situation with buffoonery, or they cave to despair. The guards are small-minded and take pleasure in cruelty. Both sets of characters are clowns, really. We can see that their vision of life is shallow and narrow and selfish.
Franz, by contrast, has the strength to encourage others. He shares what little food he has. He doesn’t run away when suffering stands in the way of what’s good. He is truly free.
With A Hidden Life, Malick invites us into the freedom and integrity with which Franz Jägerstätter lived and died. It’s a vision of a truly good life — an example worthy of more than admiration, an example worth following.