Film is an art form. Sometimes we forget that because our lives are saturated by movies that have forgotten that film should enrich us and evoke wonder in order to transform. That doesn't mean they have to be boring. It just means they have to be thoughtful and aspiring for something more than just to entertain you for two hours. We would like to spend this section spotlighting films that we think make us think, reflect and see things all the better.
A HIDDEN LIFE
The Anvil Outlives the Hammer
“But I am free.” These are the words of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian civilian imprisoned for refusing to swear loyalty to Hitler and fight in his army. They are also the words I consider to make up the single most important line of dialogue in Terrence Malik’s 2019 masterpiece, A Hidden Life. This line, in context with the line before it - “Sign this and you will go free.” - perfectly sums up everything that A Hidden Life has to say.
This is my second attempt at writing this review, having at first seen this as a daunting task and a challenge I wasn’t sure I was up to. A Hidden Life is without a doubt the single most thought-provoking film I have seen and the sheer amount of Truth that it so elegantly and deliberately presents is overwhelming. So when I sat down to continue writing my first draft, that is exactly how I felt. I’m still not really sure how to begin, or how to end, but when I was glancing back through my notes I remembered that line: “But I am free.” I realized that that line is the movie, it is the message and everything revolves around it. It answers every question the movie asks, whether they are questions posed by one character to another or posed to the audience. This one, simple line, I believe should become the motto every man and woman should strive to say and live by in complete honesty, no matter the prison they may find themselves in.
I don’t mean to exaggerate the significance of A Hidden Life, it is just a movie after all, but it is one of very few movies I would classify under the rare category of important cinema. A movie is granted a place in my personal hallowed halls of important cinema when it meets one, simple criterion: it tells the Truth.
A Hidden Life is made up of many layers of Truth, and what makes this film so eye-opening and enjoyable is discovering each layer and its meaning for yourself. It is a journey you will have to experience for yourself to truly understand since there is simply too much to explore in one sitting. With that in mind you could argue that perhaps Malik’s use of symbolism and metaphor is excessive, some of it, perhaps, even being a little too on-the-nose, but I believe it is essential to Malik’s intention; to make the audience think, “Would I be able to do what Franz did?” Thus, I can’t explain everything to you, even if I could wrap my head around every aspect of this movie, because you need to watch this film and sit with it and let it saturate your being for a little while. I will, however, talk about some of what I thought were the most poignant themes and scenes, and how they all culminate in the idea of freedom even in the midst of imprisonment.
Franz and Fani Jägerstätter are madly-in-love, tough-as-nails Austrian farmers. They live in a small village where they are engaged in the community and have many friends. The beauty and simplicity of their relationship are supplemented with stunning imagery of the Austrian landscape which give a true sense of freedom; mountains and trees and streams and rivers and stones and the little wooden cottages the Jägerstätters and their neighbors live in. You might expect scenes like these to be at least established with if not entirely composed of a wide, sweeping helicopter shot, but Malik, though it may not seem it on the surface, is restrained, saving the only aerial shots in the film for important moments towards the end of the story. This keeps us, just as Franz and Fani are, quite literally grounded. They are happy with their life together, and rarely, if ever, look beyond each other and their little town for happiness, joy, security, and freedom. Normally the saying goes, “free as a bird,” but by excluding aerial shots from these early scenes and focusing on the simplicity of Franz’s and Fani’s life and how free they are despite it, it is as if Malik has corrected this adage to one more fitting with the themes of his film; “free as a rock.”
Sticking with the cinematography and editing for a moment, at first this film almost annoyed me. Everything is shot wide with a deep depth of field. Scenes seem to haphazardly flow into each other and sometimes the only indication of a scene change or passage of time is a slight wardrobe change. The whole film almost feels like a montage. But, what I realized as I kept watching, was that Malik is trying to imitate life. We experience the world with a deep depth of field and our eyes beam the equivalent of a pretty short focal length image to our brains. When we remember events in our lives we remember mostly flashes, feelings, tastes, smells. Our lives are not rigid and made up of structured scenes, and once you get used to Malik’s style it feels so real and familiar, almost like you are remembering what’s happening in the movie even though you haven’t seen it before.
Eventually, the rumblings and rumors of war reach the village. In a scene where Franz plays a game with his children in which he is blindfolded and must find them with only his sense of hearing, Malik seems to make a statement on how evil so slowly, but surely made its way into the fabric of European life. Despite all the signs, it seemed as if the major players of the world choosedly remained blind and deaf to what was stirring in Germany. Only those attentive enough could sense what was coming. This made me think about the title of the film and which life was actually hidden. I think it certainly pertains to Franz and Fani, but I think it could also refer to evil. Evil likes to lurk in the darkness and trick you into thinking it is actually goodness. To borrow a line from The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I believe this theme is very much present in this film as well.
Soon after the game scene Franz is called up to basic training in the army. He and Fani write deep, loving letters to each other the whole time he is gone. When he returns, he is graciously greeted by Fani and his daughters and he quickly settles back into farm life, though the knowledge that he could someday be called to fight lingers in not quite the back of his mind. It is not long after that World War II breaks out, and Austrian men begin to be called up to service in Hitler’s army. This is when Franz learns that the first step to being fully integrated into the Nazi warmachine is swearing an oath to its führer. Thus begins Franz’s great moral struggle: if he is called up to fight, will he swear the oath to protect his family and potentially return to them one day, or will he refuse the oath and most likely be imprisoned and later executed?
News of Franz’s hesitation to accept the oath without question quickly reaches the townspeople and they begin to attempt to convince him to submit to the Nazis should he be called up. At every turn Franz refuses them, at times desperately searching for the words to defend his position, other times simply silent and resolute in his refusal to serve evil. Even his local priest and bishop encourage him to swear the oath when the occasion arises. Soon, the townspeople become actively hostile toward Franz and his family, excluding them from the community. Scenes of Franz’s neighbors and “friends” berating him and calling him a traitor are numerous. Malik presents them sometimes on dark, cloudy days, but also on beautiful, sun-filled days, showing that evil and temptation does not always hide in the dark. The acting in these scenes is superb as behind every insult, and every angry statement hurled at Franz, there is a twinge of fear. This is not a fear of Franz rebelling against their cruelty, but a fear of what Franz represents and what his defiance could mean for them. It is a selfish fear.
Months and months go by and with each passing day tensions build. Malik uses the sound of the mail carrier’s bicycle and bell as a stark reminder that Franz could have to face his fate at any time. It’s a pleasant sound that Malik uses to ignite fear in the Jägerstätters and to foreshadow that one day, we will know that Franz’s time is up by the sound of the mail arriving.
The fear instilled in Franz’s family begins to change them. Even they begin to berate him and question his love of them, all except Fani. She constantly defends him but she is stuck in a sort of limbo. She wants to support her husband, she wants to believe in him and his decision, but the fact remains that if he does not swear the oath she will lose him. At times it seems as though she may break. Malik shows us Fani’s troubled mind, allowing us into her fantasies where she tries to convince Franz to reconsider his choice. Malik even seems to try to trick us into believing Fani is truly having these conversations with Franz, but if we pay close attention to the details, we’ll notice continuity errors within scenes, errors that suggest these conversations did not take place the way they are being presented. One such scene takes place in a barn, where an axe can be seen protruding from a log when we first enter. As Franz and Fani converse, the axe appears and disappears and the camera seems to jump around the room during portions of the conversation. To me, this means that parts of what is being said are only in Fani’s mind, and the rest actually are happening.
Another, extremely powerful scene in this same vein takes place outside the Jägerstätters’ home on a brilliantly warm afternoon, the sun dancing in the leaves behind Fani as she imagines attempting to convince Franz to stay with her. She addresses the camera, as if we are Franz. As lovingly as she can she gazes at us and says, “...you can’t change the world. The world is stronger.” It’s an incredibly poignant moment because by saying this to the camera, Fani isn’t just telling Franz, she’s telling us. As someone who wishes to be as strong and faithful as Franz it was a moment that struck me hard. Fani has been supporting Franz entirely up to now, a constant in his ever changing life, and a constant for me as well. I felt that in my agreement with Franz’s choice, Fani was in support of me too, so to have her finally verbalize her doubt and fear was hurtful, but also reliving. She had been holding in her feelings in order to support her husband, and it took a very long time for her to address them with him. We know she’s getting ready to speak to him about it when we see her sitting alone, stoically untying a large bundle of knots, as if she’s finally freeing herself of her fear, if only for a moment, to confront him.
Finally, the day arrives. The mail carrier’s bell rings and Franz receives the letter calling him to serve in Hitler’s army. He is taken to the local barracks where he is finally presented with the situation that has burned a hole in his heart and shaken his community. Ultimately, he makes his decision, sticking with his original intention, and refuses to swear the oath. It is such a wonderful moment as we don’t see Franz puff out his chest and defy the Nazi’s with pride, instead we see him frieghtened and small. He is human, and he is terrified of what is going to happen to him. This is courage. It’s so powerful because we are so accustomed to the Marvel approach to courage, where heroes don’t think twice before making the right choice. The way Malik presents courage is in a way that feels attainable, which is so incredibly important for us to witness. We all have the potential to be heroes.
In prison Franz is treated horribly. The guards frequently torture him physically and mentally for their own amusemnt. Franz never fights back, however, and takes the punishment, no matter how severe. He finds himself turning inward even more than he had back home, still wrestling with himself over whether he made the right decision and pleading with God to give him the strength to see this through.
It is during these intense and brutal prison sequences where we first meet Franz’s lawyer. For a moment, it seems as if this man is actually on Franz’s side. He seems to want to help Franz escape his punishment, but to do so would mean Franz apologizing to the Nazis and swearing the oath. Despite the constant torture from external and internal forces, Franz will not budge. He absolutely refuses to sign a document that would be his ticket to freedom.
But why? Why will Franz not give in after everything he has been through and accept his freedom? Priests and friends and family have all told him to, basically given him permission to, swear the oath, that they will know he doesn’t mean it and it will be ok. But they do not know Franz’s heart the way they think they do. I don’t think even Franz knew his own heart and why he was willing to accept the torture before embarking on this journey. Of course, this is a movie, and the idea of a man standing up for what he believes in despite the consequences is not a new theme, but it’s different here. We are used to seeing characters stand resolute in their beliefs but, unlike other fantastical heroes, Franz doesn’t have a trick up his sleeve. Franz doesn’t have the luxury of plot armor.
The answer is because Franz is already free. He has been free since the very beginning of the film. It took him being broken down, all the way down, for him to realize. For his prayers after all this time were answered, just not in the way he expected. We know when things are really about to change in Franz when in a scene in which he’s fervently praying, Malik uses what I believe is the only aerial shot in the whole film. OUnder Franz’s prayer we sweep over the mountains and down into the prison, as if an angel has ventured into the darkness with Franz.
God and this angel have not granted Franz physical freedom, however. He was built back up from rock bottom, even while still imprisoned, and given the grace to see that he has always been truly free. No one can take his faith from him, no one can take away his purpose though, God knows, they tried. Even after all the torture, all the berating, after every time someone asked him “What purpose does standing up to evil serve if it will change nothing,” Franz remains resolute because he can see that he has no need for physical freedom.
When the lawyer tells Franz, “Sign this and you will go free,” Franz responds, “But I am free.” He is free because he has surrendered himself entirely to God. His Faith has set him free. No one can touch him, no one can change his mind, no one can convince him he is wrong because his entire being is dedicated to the Truth. Even as his captors take him to his trial, he shows kindness by righting an umbrella that has fallen from its resting place. When confronted by the Nazi judge who ultimately convicts him of his crimes, he does not struggle, he does not fight back, he peacefully accepts his fate because it is in the name of God that he quietly rebels and he knows that that cannot be for nothing.
This is why this film is so important. It gives us a real, tangible example of how to live our lives right. It gives us a beautiful and true example of masculinity in Franz and his gentle but strong and frightfully loving demeanor. It gives us a radical example of true femininity in Fani and her immeasurable strength and willingness to put her husband first in all things, even when she doubts him and God. There is simply so much Truth and beauty presented in this movie that there is not enough time or words to describe it all. Franz was free, and Fani too, because they gave their lives to the Truth, and since this film explores their lives, every frame oozes with what is right and good. Nothing else mattered once they realized this. When Fani is given one final chance to get Franz to go back on his word and sign the document, seeing him for the first time since his imprisonment, she simply says, “I love you. Whatever you do. Whatever comes. I’m with you. Always. Do what is right.”
I know that Franz knew he did the right thing, but I don’t know if he knew that in the end it would make a difference. It did. Franz’s story has moved me in ways no film has before, and I know it has done the same for many others. Franz’s sacrifice may not have changed the world in the way he may have at first expected, and maybe he even thought in the end that his enemies were right and his sacrifice didn’t amount to much, but as the village blacksmith once said to him, “The anvil outlives the hammer.” With Franz’s sacrifice as the anvil, and evil as the hammer, history has proved this statement true. Franz’s life mattered. What he did mattered because it was never so much about changing the world as it was about changing lives, or even just one life. Franz’s small, quiet defiance in the face of evil is as big a deed as any of us could hope to perform.
While watching this film I became a willing victim of Malik’s intention. I found myself asking myself, “Would I be able to do what Franz did?” The closest I could come to an answer for myself at the time was “I hope so.” As I’ve thought more and more about it, especially in the midst of the troubling times we find ourselves in, I think I’ve come up with a better answer: “Yes. If I am free.”