Arts and Culture

‘A Hidden Life’

Faith & Thought

August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in the film “A Hidden Life.” (Photo: courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

I first heard of Terrence Malick’s film, “A Hidden Life,” several months ago. Probably I read about it in a newspaper article about the Cannes Film Festival at which Malick’s film caused some discussion. I am not exaggerating when I claim that for months I had been waiting for the film to appear in this country.

Whenever people mentioned to me some film that they liked, I responded with some statement like, “I can hardly wait for Terrence Malick’s ‘A Hidden Life’ to be available for viewing.”

I saw the film about two weeks ago, and it lived up to my expectations. In fact, it went beyond my expectations. It is, I believe, a cinematic masterpiece.

Malick’s film, “The Tree of Life,”  (2011) was also an exceptionally good film. I discussed it with a film discussion group and published some of my thoughts about it.

“A Hidden Life”  is even better. I am hoping that any readers of this column who are interested in film, and especially in religious films, will make a special effort to see it.

Speaking to friends who are involved in some form of ministry, I am distressed how many have not heard about the film. A deeply religious work of art, it is something of a rarity in our secular society.

In the Christmas special of “Reel Faith” on NET-TV, critics David Dicerto and Stephen Greydanus, who probably have forgotten more about contemporary film than I will ever know, gave some wonderful insights into “A Hidden Life.”

In his comments, David stressed how sacramental the film is. The cinematography is breathtaking. Recalling some of the beautiful shots of the physical world, of mountains and rivers and forests, I think of the opening line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur.” The line is, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

Stephen gave brief but insightful comments about Malick’s career and how the film is the masterpiece created by one of the great author/directors of our time. The discussion by David and Stephen is on YouTube.

“A Hidden Life” tells the true story of Franz Jaggerstatter, an Austrian farmer, who during the Second World War refused to take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler required of every Austrian soldier. That led to his imprisonment and eventual execution.

Franz stands alone and receives little support from his parish priest or his bishop. He receives his support from his wife and from God.

Malick gives a great deal of film time to the love relationship between Franz and his wife and to the almost idyllic relationship they have with their three children. All these scenes of Franz’s family life underline that it is an enormous sacrifice he is making by refusing to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler.

In an excellent review in the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote the following:

“And Franz (August Diehl) is not the only one who suffers. He is imprisoned, first in jail and then in Berlin’s Tegel prison. Some of the words we hear on the soundtrack are drawn from the letters that pass between him and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner). She stays behind to tend the farm with her sister and mother-in-law, and also to endure the hostility of the neighbors. The film is divided between Franz’s and Franziska’s points of view and returns to  images of them together with their three daughters against a backdrop of fields and mountains — pictures of everyday life and also of an earthly paradise that can withstand human evil.

The arresting visual beauty of ‘A Hidden Life,’ which was shot by Joerg Widmer, is essential to its own argument, and to Franz’s ethical and spiritual rebuttal to the concerns of his persecutors and would-be allies. The topography of the valley is spectacular, but so are the churches and cathedrals. Even the cells and offices are infused with an aesthetic intensity at once sensual and picturesque.”

Franz’s would-be allies try to offer arguments that would free Franz to make the oath of loyalty to Hitler, but Franz’s profoundly Christian conscience will not allow him to accept any of them.

About three hours long, “A Hidden Life” is a demanding film. I am hoping to promote it to college-age students and to seminarians. I cannot think of a recent film that has the power to challenge viewers’ consciences as relentlessly and as powerfully as  “A Hidden Life” does.


Father Lauder presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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