A Hidden Life and Christianity

Ask any progressive Christian who their favorite filmmaker is, and more often than not, you’re likely to hear Terrence Malick’s name invoked in reverent tones. Of course, plenty of folks who rarely (or never) set foot in a church recognize Malick as a significant artist. However, to Christians who care a great deal about the nexus of faith and art, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about movies without discussing Malick first.

The reasons for this may be readily apparent to anyone who’s familiar with the director’s work. Essentially, though, they come down to this: most media associated with Christianity (say, Left Behind, or Breakthrough, for a more recent example) is not good art. It’s preachy and explicit in its messaging, with no apparent care for craft. Malick is the polar opposite, concerned more with questions, poetry and introspection. He’s also obsessed with craft, seeing great art as an act of worship in and of itself. Especially from 1998’s The Thin Red Line onward, his films feel like authentic, conflicted expressions of a personal spiritual journey. 

Malick’s latest, A Hidden Life, is his most directly faith-oriented film to date. It’s the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), an Austrian farmer executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler when called up to join the army. Jägerstätter is considered a martyr, and was beatified by the Catholic church in 2007. For Malick, he becomes a Christ figure, but also an allegory. He sees Jägerstätter’s life, and the lives of those around him, as examples of what happens when an ideology of hatred and fervent nationalism plants a stake in a community, and how people of faith are called to stand (and struggle to stand) against it. A Hidden Life’s WWII is a stand-in for the world right now. 

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It’s been over ten years since Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine instructed audiences that the “Nazi ain’t got no humanity” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inlgourious Basterds. In the decade that followed, we watched as a quaint, yet uproarious tale of obliterating Nazis turned from celluloid fantasy to real-world nightmare. Various films have tackled the real-world threat of the revival of insidious ethnonationalist ideology, most notably Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman in 2018, which drew a direct parallel between the inability to fully extinguish the insidious threat of white nationalism in the 1970s to the 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville that claimed the life of Heather Heyer.

Whether past is prologue or merely an instruction manual to navigate recurring and unresolved social tensions, it was hard to ignore the spectre of Nazi Germany at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, a bleak story of a young Jewish boy wandering Eastern Europe after being separated from his parents during World War II, reportedly prompted mass walkouts. Dan Friedkin’s Lyrebird, acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, made fewer waves with its story of how a member of the Dutch resistance investigated art stolen by the Nazis.

But by far the most notable films to grapple with the Third Reich came from Fox Searchlight’s two most pedigreed ponies for the fall season, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit and Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. On the surface, these films could not appear more different. Waititi’s energetic, irreverent style is at one formal extreme, and Malick’s reverential, brooding aesthetic represents another. Yet the films share more than just their obvious similarity of depicting characters quietly resisting the authoritarian impulses of Nazi Germany. Both, in their own way, celebrate the power of the individual to make a difference in the fight against evil regimes.

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a hidden life trailer

One of Terrence Malick‘s best films is The Thin Red Line, a searing existential drama set against the backdrop of World War II. The acclaimed filmmaker returns to that era with his latest, A Hidden Life. But this is no mere Thin Red Line repeat. A Hidden Life looks to be something much different – while still maintaining those Malick tropes many have come to love (and loathe). Watch the A Hidden Life trailer below.

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A Hidden Life Review

Terrence Malick has made a career crafting highly sumptuous, often meandering portraits of flawed but well-meaning individuals. He is fascinated by images of nature, and often lingers on leaves, small animals, or the texture of soil with his camera often below knee level to stretch the image to grandiose proportions. It’s thus no surprise that his latest film, A Hidden Life, continues this trend. What may surprise some is that it’s ostensibly a World War II story, telling the tale of an Austrian soldier who refuses to pledge loyalty to his fellow countryman the Fuhrer.

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