Ask any progressive Christian who their favorite filmmaker is, and more often than not, you’re likely to hear Terrence Malick’s name invoked in reverent tones. Of course, plenty of folks who rarely (or never) set foot in a church recognize Malick as a significant artist. However, to Christians who care a great deal about the nexus of faith and art, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about movies without discussing Malick first.
The reasons for this may be readily apparent to anyone who’s familiar with the director’s work. Essentially, though, they come down to this: most media associated with Christianity (say, Left Behind, or Breakthrough, for a more recent example) is not good art. It’s preachy and explicit in its messaging, with no apparent care for craft. Malick is the polar opposite, concerned more with questions, poetry and introspection. He’s also obsessed with craft, seeing great art as an act of worship in and of itself. Especially from 1998’s The Thin Red Line onward, his films feel like authentic, conflicted expressions of a personal spiritual journey.
Malick’s latest, A Hidden Life, is his most directly faith-oriented film to date. It’s the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), an Austrian farmer executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler when called up to join the army. Jägerstätter is considered a martyr, and was beatified by the Catholic church in 2007. For Malick, he becomes a Christ figure, but also an allegory. He sees Jägerstätter’s life, and the lives of those around him, as examples of what happens when an ideology of hatred and fervent nationalism plants a stake in a community, and how people of faith are called to stand (and struggle to stand) against it. A Hidden Life’s WWII is a stand-in for the world right now.
It would be easy to roll your eyes at the film’s three hour runtime – and there are certainly parts that start to feel repetitive – but it’s clear that the slow pace is necessary for the story Malick is trying to tell. He paints Jägerstätter’s small Austrian village, his farm and his relationship with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) in gorgeous, romantic tones, underlined by James Newton Howard’s achingly beautiful score. We see him playing games with his three sweet little girls, taking care of animals and making bread with his wife, sharing sweet, knowing smiles, all surrounded by incredible nature. By the time Jägerstätter faces the film’s central conflict, we’re in love with his family and his life.
When war arrives, it’s almost unnoticeable at first, the sound of a plane passing overhead. Jägerstätter even completes a few weeks of service as a national guardsman before he realizes what’s really going on, and that he fundamentally disagrees with what’s happening. When the town’s mayor, who Jägerstätter respects, starts spouting nationalist rhetoric, his words are eerily familiar, and distinctly MAGA-scented. A Hidden Life is not a movie where evil is identified quickly, and right stands up immediately against it. It’s a film that feels far more accurate to what it’s actually like to live with evil – far more subtle, filled with doubt and shock that people you thought you knew so well could harbor such hate, or be so passive.
Speaking of passivity, Malick has plenty to say about the church on that score. For much of the film, Jägerstätter becomes a kind of audience surrogate as he converses with neighbors, his priest and others about their feelings. Malick presents these conversations in first-person perspective, meaning the characters are speaking directly to us as much as they are to his protagonist. Jägerstätter’s priest disagrees with the Nazis, but believes Jägerstätter should just go along with it, for the sake of his family. An artist decorating the village church complains that congregants prefer a “comfortable Christ,” rather than depictions that make them confront Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice. Even the bishop tells Jägerstätter that the church teaches national loyalty.
These observations are hardly applicable only to Nazi Europe. Modern society faces deep divisions, and the long-term consequences of years of unresolved systemic injustices. In the U.S., the exvangelical movement has provided an identity for a growing number of people dissatisfied with the narrow, often politically conservative religion they were raised with. There’s a lot of frustration both with disillusioned Christians who find they no longer fit in their church, and with active Christians who constantly feel that as much as we work against it, the forces of evil seem to be winning. When one character says in the film, “Is this the end of the world? The death of the light?” it feels like an arrow straight to the heart of our current spiritual conflict.
Ultimately, it seems that with A Hidden Life, Malick’s view is that for those who claim to believe in justice, and in a God who is just and merciful, the only way to truly live those beliefs is through deeds. Words aren’t enough. Art isn’t enough. Justice calls for action, however small, and sacrifice, however big. This is something most Christians who align with progressive, social justice ideals already know. Malick’s film goes the extra mile by giving us an emotional portrait of the inner turmoil behind that knowledge, a turmoil that he makes heartbreakingly realistic. When the time comes, and we’re asked to sacrifice for what we know is right, Malick asks us, what will we be willing to do?
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