(Update: Jan 9, 2020) I watched the film on Dec 31. Gathered thoughts. Published the post on Jan 3. The day coincides with the day of the escalation of the US — Iran conflict. Was not aware at that time, but yet another example of some points made in the text.
The existential question addressed in this picture eventually reduces to the choice between life and death. When I write choice, I mean literally, as you would see in the film. In this sense, indirectly, it can be linked to—as famously argued by Albert Camus—the most important philosophical problem. (The one of suicide.) The story, while unfolding against the background as large-scale as it gets, is about intellectual and emotional struggles of a few. It depicts true events, but could have well been based on a hypothetical undiscovered Camus’s novel.
While the “morality” of choosing death due to hardships of life is considered questionable, the problem faced by Franz Jägerstätter was significantly deeper. More than 60 years later, the church—whose morality during the War, in turn, was questionable—recognized him as a martyr and beatified him.
Although the term conscientious objector seems to be routinely applied to Franz Jägerstätter, and technically he was, it is important to understand the difference between the heroic deed he—and other people, whose stories are less known—committed during the War and other examples of conscientious objection. There is nothing heroic in refusing to defend your country from an aggressor during a war. There is nothing heroic in refusing to serve in the army during peaceful time. (But it should be a right.)
On the contrary, the choice to go against a country–aggressor, being a citizen of that country, being repeatedly reminded that the choice would not change the course of events, and having a family that you love—still standing to one’s humanistic beliefs, to the point of death—is heroic. Being a descendant of people who fought in the War that Franz Jägerstätter refused to fight in on the other side, I consider him no less of a hero than my own grandparents and beyond (many of whom did not survive the War).
The story is no less relevant today, in the year 2020, with numerous governments still oppressing their citizens, with countries–aggressors and wars, though in some cases the methods of war have evolved.
This was about the story, but not about the film itself. The latter deserves comparable recognition and praise. A Hidden Life is likely the first Terrence Malick‘s film I have watched. I knew about his work, but did not have a chance to get familiar with it. I knew that it is considered influential to Chloé Zhao‘s films, which I adore. I knew that critics and audiences tend to have polarized opinions about Malick’s films. I can see why. My opinion is on the “genius side”.
The picture is similar to a concept music album. From the first to the last shots, there is the unique cinematography—the presence effect it creates. It is horrifying, at times, due to how effective it is. The film flows at a consistent pace, like a river. The music score contributes. Three hours pass fast. If you are familiar with European cinema, you will recognize a lot of actors; they did a decent job. (Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist died before the film was released.)
The characters sometimes speak English, sometimes German. One might find it strange or unrealistic, and, moreover, unnatural since most actors are native speakers of German. It is an interesting choice that I have not seen before. There are intentionally no subtitles for German parts, as if the director believes there is no specific value of understanding the meaning of those passages. You would realize throughout the film that it does not matter indeed: English or German—it does not affect the ability to perceive the story in any way.
Overall, it is impossible to describe in words what you would feel in the cinema while watching this film. Do it. It took me several days to gather the thoughts.