Home Theatre: A Hidden Life - Do the right thing
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's A Hidden Life, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
What does it mean to do the right thing in the face of impossible odds? In Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, the protagonist chooses to do what he believes is right at great cost to himself and his family. And he does so when there is not even the ghost of a certainty that it would make a difference. Malick's latest film is set in WWII times and is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to serve in the Nazi army.
Franz (August Diehl) is a farmer and a devout Catholic in St Radegund, a small village somewhere up in the mountains of Austria. He works hard with his loving wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and leads a happy life. They are briefly separated when he is called in for training in the German army in 1939. Fortunately, he is sent back when France surrenders. Diehl and Pachner have amazing chemistry and the couple's tender and passionate reunion makes our hearts sink with foreboding for the more cruel separation that is to come. The war doesn't end after France's surrender, as they'd hoped, and Franz's fellow villagers start getting called up for active duty. Franz and Fani live in a state of anxiety, freezing every time they hear the postman's bicycle. It could be his turn next.
For Franz, getting called to join active duty means more than just leaving his family for an indeterminate period of time and going into possible danger. He has come to question the morality of the war. He is not alone in this in Radegund. Some confess they do not believe in what they are fighting for, and yet reluctantly go to war all the same. But there are others who buy into Hitler's agenda. Everyone in the Nazi army is required to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler — something Franz feels he simply cannot do in good conscience. He talks to his priest and then the Bishop about this; they advocate prudence. They tell him to consider the consequences for his family. Refusing to serve would very likely mean execution. Franz also faces pressure from his neighbours. His family is ostracised by the village. Still, when the dreaded order comes, Franz refuses to swear the oath and is imprisoned. He suffers in prison, while Fani and his family have to bear the wrath of the village.
Malick cuts back and forth between Franz in prison and Fani struggling to make a living without much help from her neighbours. For dialogue, we get voiceover excerpts from their letters to each other. There are moments of grace in the midst of their struggles. The miller who gives Fani back more flour than the grains she brings in produce. Franz unexpectedly meeting an old acquaintance in prison who buoys him up. Franz silently giving a piece of his bread to a ravenous fellow prisoner; Fani giving up part of her harvest to an old woman. One thing that shines through is the strong faith of this couple. It is that which gives them strength to deal with all the suffering they are put through.
Suffering is easier to bear if there's at least some good that will come of it. In Franz's case, however, as several people take pains to point out, his sacrifice will not make the slightest difference. They tell him it will not be remembered. The existence of this film directly contradicts that. Franz was eventually even declared a martyr by the Catholic Church. But, it is equally true that he was largely forgotten in his own time.
However, we see that his stance does have an effect. Everyone who meets him is affected to some degree — by guilt that they are not doing as he is, perhaps. This is true even of the judge who hears his case at the military tribunal. This judge (played by the great Bruno Ganz in his last onscreen appearance) goes so far as to have a private audience with Franz, where, ironically, he too stresses on the futility of the latter's stand. He then pauses a moment and asks, "Do you judge me?" There's a certain vulnerability in the question that we wouldn't expect from a Nazi. Franz's reply is equally surprising: "I'm not saying 'He's wicked, I'm right'." It's not what you expect to hear someone say about Hitler. But while he admits he doesn't know everything, Franz is still sure that he cannot do what he believes is wrong. After he is led away, the judge sits down on the chair Franz sat on and assumes a similar position with hands on his knees. Has Franz's choice made an impression on him? We don't find out. We only see the judge hand him a death sentence in the next scene.
When looked at pragmatically, Franz's resistance may indeed appear futile. Maybe he should have taken his priest's suggestion to say the oath and think what he liked ("God doesn't care what you say, only what's in your heart."), and hoped he would never be called upon to do something he opposed. But doing the right thing goes beyond any expectations of the outcome. His stand may have made no difference at all. Or perhaps it did make some little difference. Malick ends his film with the quote from George Eliot's Middlemarch that the title is taken from: "...for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” It feels like a call to action. A Hidden Life makes us want to live such a life, to add to the good of the world, to do what is right. Franz and Fani's sacrifice was not in vain after all.