This is a Terrence Malick film, so you know there will be handheld tracking shots in which we’re just a step or two behind the characters, and we feel like invisible specters visiting their lives.
You can count on breathtakingly spectacular, “magic hour” shots of heaven on Earth.
And yes, there will be moments when you might feel restless and impatient at the sheer overpowering deliberateness of it all.
“A Hidden Life” is one of the most metaphysical films ever set against the backdrop of World War II. It is the story of a man so committed to his beliefs, he is willing to risk his life and leave his wife without a husband, his children without a father — all because he won’t sign his name to a piece of paper.
You admire this man and his devotion. You’re enraged by this man because nobody in the world will know or care about his sacrifice, and it won’t make any difference at all in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps even God doesn’t care about his grand moral stance.
Malick (“Days of Heaven,” “Tree of Life”) sets his palette down in a small, idyllic Alpine village in the Austria of the early 1940s, and focuses his sights on a story based on actual events.
Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) is an unassuming, hardworking farmer in a perpetual honeymoon stage with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). As Franz and Fani till the land, tend to their farm animals and work the soil with their hands, they are constantly teasing one another, gazing into each other’s eyes, getting lost in the moment. (Diehl and Pachner are gloriously good together.)
It’s a tough life, but it’s a good life. Franz and Fani are literally living above the clouds, and almost out of reach of the real world.
But not quite.
Hitler’s evil reach eventually extends to Franz’s village, where one by one, the local young men are conscripted into the Nazi army.
When Franz is called up, he refuses to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler, and he is thrown into a military prison. He’s eventually sentenced to hang.
As an attorney explains to Franz, he doesn’t have to fight. He could work in a hospital. It’s just a piece of paper. Sign it and keep your true thoughts in your head.
For hours, “A Hidden Life” basically tells just that one story, with Franz steadfastly refusing to compromise his beliefs, while Fani and the children suffer at home — shunned by the villagers, struggling to keep the farm going, devastated by the increasingly strong possibility Franz is never coming home.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI beatified the real Franz. (In the Catholic faith, this is just slightly less monumental than being canonized as a saint.)
As “A Hidden Life” makes abundantly clear, Franz indeed had an almost Christ-like devotion to his beliefs.
And yet we’re left wondering if it was a terrible sin of another kind for him to allow his wife and children to suffer his loss over that damn piece of paper.