A voice next to me murmured “Arm yourself with patience,” and then the door was opened. I entered a corner room on the second floor of a nondescript suburban office building, with blinds closed to keep out the Texas summer’s light and the heat that rose from the parking lot. I saw a desk on which sat three computer monitors and, against another wall, a large television. A few books stood on a shelf, a few more lay on the floor. There were office chairs of various descriptions and a low battered sofa. I was told that if I tapped the space bar of the computer keyboard and then turned to the television, I would see what I came to see.
Approximately four hours later I emerged from the room and asked for the location of the toilet. I needed to pee, but more than that I needed to compose myself, to wash my face, to take some deep breaths. After I did all that I returned to the room, where several people waited for me. I had just watched a rough cut of Terrence Malick’s new movie A Hidden Life, and Malick—he was the one who, in his soft Texas accent, had asked me to arm myself with patience—and his editors wanted to know what I thought. So I tried to tell them.
I would say more, but the nondisclosure agreement I signed before entering that room prevents me from doing so; I have said this much in order to declare a personal interest in this film. I’m no detached observer. But my attachment stems not only from getting a sneak peek at a work in progress; it also involves the strangeness of experiencing in private a work of art that’s made and meant for public attention.
I live in Waco, Texas, and like many people in Waco, Texas I go to church. But unlike most people here or anywhere else, I attend a church that has a photograph of a very young Terrence Malick on a wall in the basement. In the mid-1950s Malick’s father, Emil, was the organist at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, and his son Terry sang with the other young choristers. They stand in their neat ranks in the black-and-white photograph, alongside pictures of the then-new church and its first rector, testifying to a quickly-receding past. The church sat on blank land then; now it’s framed by trees. Malick remembers St. Alban’s fondly, and can name the other choristers, but is disinclined to disturb those memories by making a return visit. Which does not stop us from occasionally inviting him to do so.
Malick was born in Illinois, spent some of his youth in Oklahoma, studied at Harvard and then Oxford, but has for some years now lived in Austin, Texas. That is how I ended up being invited to his editing room. I was a friend of a friend, an eye from outside, and by Texas standards, I was just up the road.
In 1978, the year I turned twenty, I was a film buff—a cinephile, a cinéaste. Though this was long before the coming of VHS tapes and Blockbuster, and though I lived in Birmingham, Alabama, my learned nerdiness wasn’t as dramatic an achievement as one might think. Local colleges and universities all had regular film series with cheap or free admission. More important, I took a course at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on film in the sound era, taught by an astonishingly knowledgeable man named Abe Fawal, who chose films less for their fame than for what they could show us about the technical development of the medium. An older friend of mine who moved in Birmingham’s arty circles listened to me wax ecstatic about the class and then asked if I knew that Fawal had been an assistant director of Lawrence of Arabia. I did not believe this tale, but later discovered that it was true.
So I was well prepared, in late 1978, to see a new movie called Days of Heaven, by a director named Terrence Malick whose only previous film, Badlands, had appeared five years earlier and created something of a stir. And yet I was not prepared. I had never seen so simply beautiful a film—had not known that a film could be so beautiful. I didn’t know what to make of it, really, but images from the film—a steam engine, backed by clouds, clanking across a spare bridge; a line of people bearing torches in the dark to drive locusts from their wheat fields—stayed with me for years. (Néstor Almendros, the film’s cinematographer, later said that Malick wanted to shoot the whole film at the so-called “magic hour” or “golden hour” just before sunset—which meant that he had to find a way to prevent the film’s backers from knowing that the cast and crew were only shooting around twenty minutes a day: the “magic hour” is the magic half-hour at best.) I knew then that I would watch any movie that this man Terrence Malick made. I did not know that he wouldn’t make another movie for twenty years.
The dates of subsequent Malick films are as follows: 1998, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017. I saw them all. Certain traits link them, the more obvious ones being an elegantly composed, painterly cinematography and the use of voice-overs as soliloquies: internal monologues delivered only to the audience. But there are others. Long silences. Scenes of the natural world shot with a still camera. Classical music to span moments when speech becomes unnecessary or impossible. In almost all of Malick’s films characters spend time in water. Intimacy is often depicted through close-ups of intertwined fingers. And increasingly, from The Tree of Life on, his films have been concerned with overtly religious, indeed specifically Christian, themes.
The more recent films were loosely scripted, with much improvisation by the actors. This was controversial, not widely admired, sometimes mocked. I read that Malick—who writes as well as directs all his films—had “repented” of this looseness and was returning to more detailed scripts. And then I read that he was making a movie about Franz Jägerstätter.
Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic who, when the Second World War broke out, refused, on religious grounds, to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler. That is to say, he refused to make his political leader—a man consumed with hatred for everything he deemed Other and Alien, a man who saw loyalty to the German Empire and loyalty to him as one and indissoluble—an idol to be worshipped. He was imprisoned for this offense and, on August 9, 1943, executed for treason. He was 36 years old, and he left behind a wife and three young daughters. Gradually his story became known, and the writings he left behind were disseminated, and people spoke of him as a martyr.
The word “martyr” means “witness”: the martyr is one who bears witness to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, most typically by undergoing his or her own Passion. The word “passion” comes from the Latin patior: to suffer. On October 26, 2007 Franz Jägerstätter was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.
Now that I have defined the words “martyr” and “passion,” I will define one more word. In the New Testament the word “mystery” refers to an event, or a reality, of overwhelming significance, but a significance that is either unstatable in words or altogether unknown. Thus St. Paul speaks of “the mystery of iniquity”—what in our more prosaic and insensible times we tend to call “the problem of evil.” In Paul’s view, to call iniquity a “problem” is to trivialize it beyond recognition. For one who believes not only in God but in the goodness and graciousness of God, iniquity is the profoundest of mysteries. One scarcely dares to speak of it at all, and nothing is more desperately to be avoided, on this subject, than glibness.
The story of Franz Jägerstätter, as told by Terrence Malick, is a Passion narrative; a narrative of a witness; a mystery.
On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, the Sunday that ushers in Holy Week, we the parishioners of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas will do what millions of Christians all over the world do. We will read the narrative, from one of the Gospels, of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Several members of the congregation may be assigned roles—Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Narrator—but one speech is made by the entire congregation. It consists of two words. Those words are “Crucify him.”
The narrative of A Hidden Life begins with the Jägerstätter family living together in the village of St. Radegund, their peace disturbed only by the possibility that Franz will be called up to serve in the German army. Eventually he is called up, but refuses to swear fealty to Hitler; and the path of the story now forks in two. Scenes of Franz in prison cells or under interrogation alternate with scenes of his wife, mother and sister-in-law trying to farm their crops and run their household without him. Franz does not tell Fani about the beatings; Fani does not tell Franz that they have become pariahs. (Franz imagines his daughters bedecked in flowers for the village’s Corpus Christi festival; we see them standing in plain clothes at a distance, not daring to draw closer, mocked by the other children.)
There is a moment in Luke’s Gospel where, we are told, Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem,” towards the place where we will die. The story of A Hidden Life is what happens, not just to Franz but also to his helpless wife and mother and children, when he sets his face towards his own death. It is an awesome thing to watch, in the older sense of “awesome,” especially in the clear light of day.
Malick’s director of photography on A Hidden Life, Jörg Widmer, has said that the film was shot in very long takes, as long as forty minutes, in order to give the actors maximal freedom of movement and response. The film contains almost no artificial lighting—much of it happens outdoors, and the interior scenes are typically side-lit by windows; night scenes are candlelit—which meant that Widmer relied heavily on the ability of their RED digital cameras to render precisely the details of the material world that an ordinary camera would be unable to capture. The effect, especially in the scenes set in the Jägerstätter farmhouse and its outbuildings, is very like that of a Vermeer painting: as though the eye of God looks calmly on to the lives of these creatures He has made, whose quiet dignity is known fully only to Him, though we borrow some of that insight from makers of images. “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.”
Vermeer’s light, almost, though shone upon more troubled and haunted faces than Vermeer ever painted. The incongruity between the placid lucidity of the images and the misery that the characters face is painful, and perhaps especially so when you see it, as I did, several times, in a room alone.
When I saw the finished version of the film, in Austin’s Paramount Theatre last October, I had some difficulty adjusting to the presence of others. I suppose people involved in the making of films have this experience regularly, but it was the first time for me. I felt that I was about to make some shameful confession not in a small booth in the corner of the church but in the middle of a football field with an audience of thousands milling around. This may seem a rather extravagant metaphor, but as I say, I’m declaring an interest—I’ve been declaring one throughout this essay.
Where are you leading me? Teach us where to seek you. Christ, be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in the heart. Flood our souls with your spirit and life… so completely… that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to seek you.
— Father Quintana in Malick’s To the Wonder (2012)
Involvement, even of the slight kind I had with the making of A Hidden Life, can presumably disable one’s critical faculties. Perhaps it has disabled mine—I am, after all, perfectly capable of being quite critical of some of Malick’s films. (His belief that his recent methods require repentance is one I share.) But it is far more common, I think, for a lack of sympathy with a work of art to make one less attentive to it than one should be. Richard Brody’s review in the New Yorker of A Hidden Life is a case in point. To some extent this is simply a matter of a mismatch of art and viewer, the sort of thing that happens all the time, and must happen, because no one’s taste is infinitely sensitive, infinitely receptive. When Brody says that the film is “aridly theoretical and impersonal,” I think, He cannot have seen the same movie I did—and in an important sense that’s exactly right. But even with such matters taken into account, Brody makes a number of statements that simply aren’t true, and which, for an experienced critic who has often written insightfully about Malick’s films in the past, can only indicate failures of attention. When Brody says that the movie keeps Franz’s suffering at arm’s length, he may not have noticed that it’s his own arm that’s extended.
For instance, Brody complains about “studio Nazis from Central Casting (who bark in German, while Franz and Fani speak to each other in English)”—but in the film German is used on varying occasions and for varying purposes. I keep seeing Brody’s claim recycled by other people, so, for the record: What does the angry Nazi mayor of St. Radegund speak when he rails against Franz or immigrants or whatever else he rails against? — English. What does the elegant pinstripe-suited interrogator of Franz speak? — English. What does the judge speak when he asks Franz, “Do you judge me?” — English. What does Fani speak when she prays the Lord’s Prayer with her children? — German. What does Franz speak when he prays the Lord’s Prayer in his cell at Tegel? — German. The movie is mainly in English, for what I hope are obvious reasons, but when German is used, both decent and nasty people use it. It seems to me that in this story German is both the most public and the most private of languages, while English occupies the conversational middle. The strategy is quite complex, but Brody’s lack of sympathy for and interest in the film disables him from noticing it.
There’s a flailing quality to Brody’s review, exemplified in its multitude of diverse and peculiar charges. “The townspeople appear to have been living like Rousseauian innocents, in a state of natural nobility tinged by a golden drop of Catholicism—happy, safe, and holy.” But the narrowness, rigidity and intolerance of many in the village begins to appear fifteen minutes into the film. Any viewers who come to the theater prepared to see such innocence are very quickly disabused of any such idea. Anything but an “agrarian paradise,” St. Radegund is a place where the Fall occurred long, long before the Anschluss.
At the other end of the spectrum, some Catholic viewers and reviewers—Dan Hitchens, for instance—have complained that Malick’s Jägerstätter doesn’t make the kind of arguments for Christian truth that the real martyr made. This is to misunderstand the nature of the film just as badly as Brody does. It isn’t a biopic, or a meticulous historical reconstruction. It is, as I have said, a Passion.
The real Franz Jägerstätter wrote a good deal about what he believed and why he believed it, in letters and also in essays. By contrast, Malick’s Jägerstätter says almost nothing about such things. Again and again his inquisitors and tormentors demand answers from him, which he does not give. He is not defiant; merely silent. The silence sometimes reads as stubbornness; sometimes as firmness; sometimes as puzzlement, as though Franz himself does not quite understand why it is this course that bears him relentlessly away from family and home and towards death.
“When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer.”
A useful contrast to Brody: When A. O. Scott reviewed A Hidden Life for the New York Times, he wrote,
Franz is not an activist; he isn’t connected to any organized resistance to Hitler, and he expresses his opposition in the most general moral terms. Nazism itself is depicted a bit abstractly, a matter of symbols and attitudes and stock images rather than specifically mobilized hatreds. When the mayor rants about impure races, either he or the screenplay is too decorous to mention Jews.
And this, I suppose, is my own argument with this earnest, gorgeous, at times frustrating film. Or perhaps a confession of my intellectual biases, which at least sometimes give priority to historical and political insight over matters of art and spirit. Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better.
Like Brody, Scott isn’t wholly convinced by the film; like Brody, he finds it frustrating, though less consistently; unlike Brody, he wonders whether his frustration is wholly Malick’s fault. Scott’s humility here is admirable: he senses that A Hidden Life holds some meaning or insight that he can’t quite grasp, but that might be worth grasping. Perhaps in better light he could see what to lay his hand on.
In part Scott is saying that he knows how to see and interpret a Holocaust film, but this isn’t one. There are no Jews in it. It therefore evades acknowledging what almost all of us now think of as the most central fact about Nazism: its genocide of Europe’s Jews.
There are no Jews in A Hidden Life because in the Hitler era there were no Jews in remote Austrian mountain villages. And yet the ultimate demand of Nazism—its demand for unconditional and unquestioning obedience, as manifested in a spoken oath of loyalty to the person of Adolf Hitler—reaches even there. The craving of the totalitarian system for power, its libido dominandi, has no terminus, and its administrative and technocratic resources are such that it can and will find you and order you to bend your knee. So if Scott wants “historical and political insight,” there it is.
But that’s not where the story of A Hidden Life ends, that’s where it begins. What do you do when you are confronted with that absolute demand for absolute obedience? What do you do when the administrative extensions of Hitler’s will send you a letter that calls you to serve—when your Mortall God, as Thomas Hobbes named it, requires your obeisance? Maybe, if you’re a Christian, you’ll hear a voice in your head: “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” And then what?
Behold, I tell you a great mystery: Some people heed that voice rather than the voice of their Mortall God. A. O. Scott doesn’t get it—“Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better”—but then, who does? St. Paul famously speaks of the mystery of iniquity, but the mystery of courage and integrity may be greater still.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who died nearly two years after Franz Jägerstätter, at the hands of the same regime and for the same cause—famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” How is it that some answer that call, even when the death demanded is in no sense metaphorical? This is something that, I think, cannot be explained, though perhaps it can be portrayed. And that is what A Hidden Life seeks to do.
There’s a good reason, then, why a scene early in the movie presents us with a lengthy meditation by an artist who is restoring the paintings on the walls of a local church. The temptation, he says, is to comfort—to give the people “a comfortable Christ.” Will he ever have the courage to show the people “the true Christ”? He thinks he might. Someday. I see this as a question Terrence Malick puts to himself: Can he, dare he, show us the Passion of a poor Christian who has taken up his cross and followed Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death? Can his imagination stretch from the staggering beauty of the Alpine valley where Franz and his wife Fani had hoped they would be high enough, distant enough, to be safe, to the horrors of Tegel prison and then the guillotine? Can he show us? Perhaps. Can he make us understand? No.
Again, this is a great mystery. But the film holds another one, and this may require still more courage to portray. “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” The film ends not with Franz’s death, but with Fani’s devastated grief for him; and as she weeps and rails—and tries to learn to face a life raising her children without her beloved husband in a village that has almost unremittingly scorned him and, because of him, has shunned her and her daughters—she takes desperate hold on her own faith. She receives, or by some inexplicable strength of will conjures up, a vision. And this is not merely the usual hope for being reunited with one’s departed loved ones, though it contains that: it is, rather, a vision of the New Creation, the καινὴ κτίσις, the restoration of all that has been defaced, all that has been shattered, by the evil of men. It is, in the closing moments of the film, a confession of trust in the promise of the scarred and wounded King who sits upon the throne he has in agony gained and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”