What is it that makes Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life so starkly unique and beautifully profound? To answer this question, let’s start by considering literature.
Great literature attempts to encapsulate the beauty and hardship of life and its relation to the rest of the world; literature engages some of humanity’s most fundamental considerations. We all can relate to some aspect of nearly any classic work of literature from any century and any culture. What characterizes the lasting impact of these works is their ability to describe and depict human experience. Over thousands of years, regardless of all the change and development that removes the modern era from those past, human beings still see their world in many universally understood ways.
That said, one does not have to strain her imagination to picture many ways in which life is a different thing today than it was in the time of Christ, David, Moses, or Adam. Cultural, technological, and philosophical evolution assure that modern man sees his existence differently than his predecessors. We do not only live by different means, but we also frame our understanding of that living through a radically different epistemological lens.
Neil Postman, a culture and technology critic active in the second half of the twentieth century, considered this feature of human experience and studied explanations for the techno-social phenomena that he witnessed in his time. In one of his most influential and enduring works, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), Postman argues that electronic communication technology, epitomized in the television, has fundamentally altered the lens through which modern society views life. His thesis is that humanity’s view of itself is at least heavily (if not primarily) influenced by its dominant medium of communication.
In an oral culture, the embodiment of human experience and knowledge is defined by direct relation of memory; where memory fails, proximal immediacy is solely legitimate. In a written culture, knowledge and experience are disembodied, depersonalized, and delocalized. Oral means of communication become less important and can even become suspect in a written world. Print culture moves written culture further to a replicable mass-produced level, exacerbating its effects. Finally, electronic culture entirely removes information from any semblance of proximity and undoes most of the benefits of memory, logic, and contextualization that were vital to its antecedents.
If you need an example of the essence of electronic communication, consider Twitter trends. Think about how arbitrarily the trending topics are assorted beside your timeline. Think about the relativism, ambiguity, and subjectivity employed by all sides discussing the issue at hand. Think about how often a trending hashtag actually applies to your life in any meaningful way and what you can practically do to change the situation. Think about how this makes you feel.
The helplessness, confusion, anxiety, anger, and despondency, Postman would argue, are not just side-effects of electronic media, but are essentially tied to what it is to understand our world in an electronic age. Our inclination to refresh our feed, to change the channel, to disregard well-argued points that contradict our opinions are not accidents of modern society, but inseparably tied to the way we consume and process information. It is not that we cannot think and live in other ways, it is that the media we use can hardly communicate anything else.
Today everything is show business; we are all performing. Everything is diversion; we’d rather not think too hard. Everything is clickbait; nothing has any value beyond its moment. We live in an age of vapid volume. If great literature manifests human experience, electronic media make all experience subservient to entertainment.
What are movies for?
Practically all electronic media are primarily entertainment, even if the content might seem serious, informational, or educational. A culture of electronic media has a difficult time disengaging from this epistemological approach; we have been so acclimated to it. So, when we witness a movie abandon this purpose, it stands out from the balance of popular cinema. This is how Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life confronts the modern audience in a quietly shocking way.
For those who have yet to see a trailer or read another of the many reviews of A Hidden Life, the very simple plot breaks down as follows:
The movie is a highly cinematic depiction of Franz Jägerstätter’s conscientious objection to fight as an Austrian soldier under Hitler’s Third Reich and his refusal to swear allegiance to the empire by signing the Hitler oath. The film prominently portrays Jägerstätter’s objection to Hitler’s immoral government and unjust war, a conviction that was motivated by Jägerstätter’s unshakable Catholic faith. A Hidden Life jointly shows Franz’s wife Franziska’s struggle with his decision in spite of the fact that she shares his objections and his faith. Malick artfully shows his audience the pain and beauty and anxiety and peace that living a life of quiet faith will surely bring to those living in a horribly broken world.
What is meant when I use the terms “highly cinematic” and “artfully” is mostly that the movie was not produced for a general commercial audience. Martin Scorsese can rejoice that it is nothing like a Marvel movie. It’s not Transformers. It’s not even Game of Thrones or any of the more respected franchises or series. A Hidden Life is a wonderfully unique thing.
A Hidden Life is not an entertaining movie. It is beautiful and profound and entirely worthwhile, yes, but not entertaining. This is the first indication that the movie is occupying a different space than that which concerned Postman. It is an indication that A Hidden Life employs an epistemological lens that differs from most electronic media. One does not watch this particular movie as one approaches most everything else in our electronic age.
The question asked at this point is what is the purpose of a movie that is not entertaining. If there is not a wedding and dance at the end, if we cannot walk out of the theater smiling, what’s the point? Why should we be interested?
In the case of A Hidden Life, the answer is that Malick elegantly and accurately depicts what faith looks like, and his depiction of faith is not what most people would hope or suppose. It definitely looks nothing like God’s Not Dead: it is no campy, one-sided apologetic. It is not even a creative illustration of the gospel like Lewis’ original The Chronicles of Narnia. Interestingly, the movie may not even be an accurate biographical portrayal of Franz Jägerstätter’s life. These are not what Malick wants to show us. Instead, he wants to show us genuine faith, for our moral and spiritual edification.
So, what is this faith that we are supposed to see? As it turns out, Franz’s faith looks a lot like the rest of his life, in all of its mundane detail, and this is exactly what the movie is about.
Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is a deeply spiritual conviction, one that is difficult to describe logically, one that spreads its roots of influence throughout the entire existence of a believer. Faith is not belief only; it is the acceptance of a verity that defines one’s existence beyond apologetic proofs. Faith infiltrates life below the level of visual or intellectual codification and classification. Faith sneaks into our daily lives stealthily, unseen. But when so sure a faith in such divine truth comes to define a person’s life, that life surely shines forth with a clear and distinguishing light.
Because faith lives underneath the surface of life’s banality, the character of a normal life is the subject matter of each scene of A Hidden Life. Besides the very basic visualization of an outdoor pastoral life in the Austrian Alps, the movie has many extended scenes showcasing domestic life, farm life, village life, life in prison, and the quiet religious life of a private man.
Most of the movie’s scenes seem to drag on, to linger, unlike the rapid pace of TV, more like real life. Many scenes are just images of mountains, clouds, and various vegetation. When characters are in frame, the camera often stays zoomed on their faces, showing no extraordinary passion. Sometimes the characters labor silently in a field or stand silently in a prison yard or sit silently in the home.
There is a frustrating lack of dialogue throughout the movie. Even when characters are talking to each other, the frame breaks and extended silences turn the dialogue into a strange collection of back-and-forth monologues. It is not until Franz has an actual conversation with a court-martial judge near the end of the movie that we viewers feel like we can finally fill our lungs, not realizing that we have been holding our breath. The lack of communication throughout the movie is stifling. All we want to see is Franz justify himself.
But faith is something else; it is not an exercise in personal justification, as Malick makes abundantly clear. Having a robust education in philosophy, Malick is surely familiar with Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. In Kierkegaard’s work, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is held up as the quintessential act of faith.
Kierkegaard admits that he cannot comprehend the faith of Abraham, a man who was promised generations of blessing through his son Isaac, a man who was willing to give up that promise and sacrifice his son knowing that God would ultimately keep his covenant in some absurd way. Abraham shows that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. His surety in God’s promises defines his whole existence. As Hebrews 11 shows us in a number of other Old Testament examples, faith is the manifestation of belief through lives lived in complete reliance on God. It is confidence in the ultimate goodness of his commands and promises, regardless of the perils that surround and the doubts that buffet.
What is faith really? It is so hard to describe in any satisfactory way.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard suggests that all true acts of faith must be like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: completely illogical and absurd to those witnessing that faith in action, probably unethical in some way, and definitely impractical. If Kierkegaard is right, and I believe there is more truth to his approach than many other definitions of faith, Malick made a movie about faith in just the way he should. Instead of trying to show what Jägerstätter’s faith is in itself, which would be impossible, he instead shows what living in faith looks like.
For those expecting something more, something exciting, engaging, and intellectually satisfying, they must be sorely disappointed. The plot of the movie is limited, if also exceptional; linear and predictable, if also revolutionary. The movie is boring, if also thoroughly beautiful. We sense the inevitable end of the story very early in the film, and still the viewing is enchanting and instructive in a quietly passive way. We see the Jägerstätters’ faith and we internalize it, even if we can never really put it into words.
Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death tells us that consuming information primarily through electronic media, modern people see their world through the metaphor of detached and meaningless entertainment. Contrarily, consuming a depiction of faith through a tedious portrayal of one man’s ill-fated life, the audience of A Hidden Life see their world through the very natural experience of a very normal daily life, with all the unsettling existential meaning attached.
In the midst of the humdrum of each day, something is striking in Franz’s life. His wife, mother, and sister-in-law witness it and its consequences with mixed emotions. His neighbors see it and despise it. His military leaders see it and try to squash it. What makes Franz’s life unique is his faith. Underneath all of the normal tasks of the day is a constant communion with and trust in God.
Though we can now take a historical look back and appreciate the exceptional Christian witness of Franz Jägerstätter, the living of his life was anything but extraordinary. Just like A Hidden Life, Jägerstätter’s life was surely slow, tedious, and at points, unbearably boring. At the same time, we have every right to hold up Jägerstätter’s life as completely remarkable and totally inspiring.
In A Hidden Life, Malick illustrates what real faith looks like. He shows us the way that faith grounds our lives in a mundane earthly reality. In the same slow and steady breath, he tells us that faith simultaneously and contradictorily debases earthly existence in favor of the promise of our royal adoption into the kingdom of heaven. In spite of disappointment and despair, Franz and Franziska find peace by adopting the “metaphor” of faith through which they see God’s providence and goodness in everything, the good and the bad.
The artistic core of Malick’s movie is beautifully summed up in the quote that closes the film. We read in George Eliot’s Middlemarch how completely unnoteworthy lives end up having great influence on the world:
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric 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.
Returning to Hebrews 11, we are reminded that,
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth… And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
People of faith see God’s perfect promise in the near distance. It changes everything, in spite of everything. And until the promise is fulfilled or we too die in faith, we pray that we might live the hidden life that Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter exemplified.