Oof. This is not a film to approach lightly. I wouldn’t recommend just throwing it on casually. A Hidden Life demands to be watched in a distraction-free setting with no interruptions. It’s a difficult, painful movie that presents an opportunity to step outside of the flow of daily life and really put yourself through something. Watching it right now in March of 2020 invites a shift in perspective from petty bickering over the Democratic primary to dire contemplation of the imperative of resistance unto death. One of the things I appreciate about Malick is how utterly unconcerned he is with trends and fashions. This film is the polar opposite of the sort of cheap and easy political cinema that is currently popular with educated audiences in America. A Hidden Life is the inverse of Jojo Rabbit. If Jojo is the Happy Meal of Anti-Fascism, this is the Last Supper.
A Hidden Life is Malick’s most philosophically explicit film since at least Tree of Life, and the influences are unexpected. Of course it is a Christ parable, but it connects Christ with Socrates on the one hand and Kant on the other in a way I found both surprising and devastating. Kierkegaard is also an obvious point of reference, but I’ll leave that connection for someone more qualified than me to explain. It was clear to me early on that Malick was thinking about Plato and Socrates (particularly the Apology, Phaedo and Gorgias), but he eventually goes so far as to include a direct quotation from the Gorgias: “It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.” Socrates’ stance is that there is nothing that can be gained through injustice– not even the preservation of one’s own life– that outweighs the cost of doing injustice, which is nothing less than sickness and disease of the soul. When the Nazis commit injustices against Franz, they harm themselves more than they harm him, and for him to accede to their demands would be for him to harm himself far worse than they ever could. They merely threaten his body, but for Franz submit to them willingly would mean the corruption of his soul.
The Kantian influence in the film is manifested both in Franz’s conception of freedom and in Malick’s persistent attention to the fact that Franz’s sacrifice will have no positive impact. When Franz insists that he is free while he is in prison, he means he is free in the Kantian sense that he is following a law that has emerged from his own will. One of Malick’s most distinctive traits as a filmmaker is his ability to pose a question discursively and then answer it cinematically. The film asks quite explicitly whether it should matter to Franz that his choice will have no consequences either way beyond the loss his family will endure if he stands on principle. The answer to this question, however, is something that we are meant to feel rather than apprehend cognitively. Malick trusts the power of August Diehl and Valerie Pachner’s performances to convey the validity of Franz’s decision.
What of Malick’s choice to have the bad characters speak unsubtitled German for the most part while the good characters speak English? Browsing reviews I see complaints that this makes Nazi evil ‘other’ in a simplistic way. I don’t think this is right. Austrian dialect is different from the German that most Nazis would have been speaking, and my impression after one viewing is that Malick has used English primarily for dialogue in Austrian (and perhaps for some non-Austrian German dialogue that is integral to the narrative), while he left the other German dialogue unsubtitled in part to convey Franz’s alienation and quasi-foreignness. There is not one bit of unsubtitled dialogue in the movie that I could not infer the meaning of from tone and context. I take Malick’s choice here to be akin to Godard and Straub-Huillet’s choices to leave some dialogue unsubtitled (or cryptically subtitled, in Godard’s case). It just doesn’t matter exactly what’s being said, and subtitles would be more of a distraction than a help.
If I have a significant quibble with the film it’s that I had a hard time getting used to some aspects of the cinematography. I felt that the fisheye lens was overused in the first half. It works much better in the claustrophobic interior spaces of the second half. I also found the camerawork to be jerkier and less elegant than what we’ve seen in Malick’s other late films. Again, this works better in the second half. I’m going to suspend judgment on this point until I get a chance to rewatch the movie, because my problems here could have been mostly a matter of misaligned expectations. On the plus side, the immediacy of the digital photography is compelling and a lot of the unorthodox framing choices are striking.
At the end of the day, I have to set aside any small faults I find in this, because it’s just so incredibly overwhelming in the emotional impact it builds over the course of three hours. Worrying about the fisheye lens feels tawdry in light of the movie’s cumulative weight. It’s a singularly powerful film.