Citizen and Soldier: Moral Choice in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life

by Daniel Garrett Volume 25, Issue 1 / January 2021 14 minutes (3295 words)

Terrence Malick has long been heralded as cinema’s poet of nature. Who would imagine Terrence Malick as a poet or philosopher of war? Yet poet and philosopher of war are what he seems when one considers the beauty and depth of first The Thin Red Line (1998) and then A Hidden Life (2019), two works that recognize war’s threat to human value. “I thought that we could build our nest high up in the trees. Fly away like birds,” ruminates Franz, the married Austrian farmer, at the beginning of A Hidden Life, as Adolph Hitler parades, attended by the masses, and military planes fly over European cities—and Austrian citizens are called to military service and required to take a loyalty oath to Hitler. Does one trust the character and consciousness of the leader? Can the citizen be obedient without faith? Such questions begin to occur, as well, to American soldiers under commanders who seem not to know or care about the chaotic treachery fighters face in battle, commanders willing to use soldiers as tools in the fulfillment of their own career ambitions in The Thin Red Line. The ordinary soldier comes to see those in his own troop as a brother, son, or father—as family, wanting to defend them, but still asks questions about the sanity and sense of the mission. Terrence Malick, facing brutality, finds beauty too: the fierce bounty of nature, and the surprising compassion of men.

Terrence Malick, a Harvard philosophy student and graduate, a Rhodes scholar, journalist, teacher, writer, and the director of Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), has made films known for their reveries—for contemplations of creation in all its manifestations. The Thin Red Line (1998), from a script by Malick based on a novel by James Jones, is set during the second world war and the American fight against the Japanese in Melanesia (the Battle of Guadalcanal), and begins with a crocodile entering water, sinking beneath the algae; and near the film’s end that crocodile will be caught and trussed by soldiers. In the beginning of The Thin Red Line, a soldier exists on an island with its native population, swimming, canoeing, talking—and at the end of the film, he returns, in army gear, and the natives seem distant, suspicious, their land having come nearer to battle. Of course, war occurs between men—and in nature. There are many narrators of The Thin Red Line—and their contributions suggest connected concerns, shared consciousness; and the first narrator acknowledges that there is war in nature, between land and sea, among living things. Witt (Jim Cavaziel) rows past natives, who canoe, gather rocks, play, and sing. Someone—Witt?—recalls his mother’s dying, and doubts the probability of immortality; yet hopes he has the same calm in dying as his mother, thinking that calm might be immortality.

The images of sky, clouds, mountains, land, and sea in The Thin Red Line are beautiful to the point of sublimity. A large transport ship comes into view. Witt (Cavaziel), who, apparently, has been neglecting his duty for frolic on the island, is questioned by Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), who doubts Witt will ever be a real soldier; and plans to send Witt to a disciplinary outfit as a stretcher bearer. Welsh (Penn) thinks Witt (Cavaziel) should be grateful for the change—but Witt likes being part of the company, he cares about the other men. Witt’s compassion, his sense of the large patterns of life, which Welsh thinks make him weak, will make Witt useful. Written and directed by Malick, the film was photographed by John Toll and edited by Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein; and the film shows us what makes war terrifying—and what allows men to survive. Before an important South Pacific battle, Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), an older officer, a frustrated military career man, hears the strategy of a superior, General Quintard (John Travolta), which Tall (Nolte) will have to carry out—and Tall attempts to reassure Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who is responsible for the company going to shore. One soldier, Train (John Dee Smith), admits to being scared as a child by a violent father, of taking refuge in a chicken coop, and says he is more scared now, and considers the ship a floating graveyard. Yet, the men have a safe beach landing—the trouble is in the hills. The soldiers find corpses, and help the wounded. Witt wonders about men being part of one great soul.

Captain Staros (Koteas) worries about his men’s safety and thirst, about the need for water, but Colonel Tall (Nolte) insists on battle as the priority, specifying a dangerous frontal assault on a hill the Japanese hold. Tall is encouraging to an end—he wants military success; but this is his first war and Tall does not seem mindful of the chaos, of the sheer slaughter. The men, throughout their ordeal, will wonder, usually in solitude, about the actual purpose of all the killing. “The whole thing is about property,” grumbles Welsh (Penn) with disgust. Having lost twelve of his colleagues, one soldier compares the men to grass cut down, then says, “We’re just dirt.” Welsh advises Witt (Cavaziel) to take care of himself, warning Witt that he cannot save others—and declaring there is only this world, this imperfect world, no better world to be found.

Strategy may be decided by the powerful, but the tactics can vary, in the hands of soldiers and workers: men, by character, by choice, by chance, improvise to achieve the desired goal. Colonel Tall (Nolte) seems the spirit of war: aggressive, selfish, single-minded, mean; and he wants the hill attacked in one way (a direct attack on a bunker of armed Japanese soldiers who will see them coming); but the men under his command see other ways, by flank and stealth, and pursue those—and fulfill the colonel’s goal. The ordinary soldiers, knowing their lives can be lost, often show themselves to be brave and intelligent—and, also, some have moments of great doubt, fear, and pain. When John Gaff (John Cusack) does well in battle, he is offered medals and what he asks for is water for the men. The colonel first resists the call for water, then seeing the genuine concern and moral claim—and seeing that his own indifference inspires skepticism— asks to have water delivered. The conflicts are national yet primal: a fight for dominance, for survival. A dead Japanese soldier seems to speak to Witt—but in the voice of the captain (Koteas), suggesting the narrators as speakers of one consciousness. Despite the accomplished mission, the colonel relieves the captain of his command: the captain, who refused to put his men at senseless risk, who insisted on a refined tactic, a flanking move, finds intolerant disapproval. The captain wants to preserve life; the colonel wants to deliver death.

In A Hidden Life (2019), Franz and his wife Fani work in their fields, cutting grass, tending potatoes, their cows in the barn; and the couple greet and are greeted by their neighbors. Fani recalls the couple’s first meeting, his motorcycle, her best dress. Franz and Fani have children, little girls; and Fani’s sister Resie comes to live with them. Their mountain valley life is simple, organized around nature, work, family, church, and community. Yet, the images are large, lush (the drama was photographed by Jorg Widmer, and edited by Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, and Sebastian Jones). August Diehl, the German actor who appeared in Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx as Marx, plays Franz; and Valerie Pachner, an Austrian actress, plays Fani. These characters were inspired by the true story of a man who refused to fight, was executed in 1943, and was later declared a martyr, and beatified, by the Catholic church: Franz Jägerstätter, who was married to Franziska. Franz, the son of farmer Franz Bachmeier and maid Rosalia Huber, had been adopted by his stepfather Heinrich Jägerstätter, and was partly reared by his devout grandmother. Franz had a wild youth, but shared religious devotion with his wife. The film was inspired by their published letters, Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison (2009); and there was a 1964 biography of Franz, In Solitary Witness, by Gordon Zahn, and a 1971 Austrian television documentary by Axel Corti, The Refusal.

Austria had been annexed by Germany in 1938, the Anschluss. Franz Jägerstätter did not approve of the annexation—and he rejected the post of village mayor. In the film A Hidden Life, the village of Franz and Fani, Sankt Radegund (or St. Radegund) in Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria, is isolated: life can seem to go on beyond the reach of modern complexity or turmoil. Fani hears the rumble of a plane; stops, pays attention: a disruption in paradise. Franz, in 1940, is summoned to, and goes for, military training for the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, under German officers; and while training Franz makes a friend—Waldland, a plain, joyful man. The officers speak German—and while Franz and Fani often speak in English, Fani and her sister Resie (Maria Simon) sing in German: suggesting Austria and Germany have a genuine bond, but there are differences. Fani hears that France has surrendered, and that farmers are being sent home—and she hopes to be reunited in life and work (burning weeds, tending animals, acquiring piglets) with Franz, who, while training, is shown black-and-white footage of the war, the destruction of people and cities, and while fellow soldiers clap, he does not. The historical documentation reminds us that the war is more than a great myth of courage or horror—more than inspiration or setting: it is fact. “What has happened to our country, to the land we love?” Franz asks in a letter to his wife.

Time passes, seasons change—Fani gathers wood in the snow, and Franz returns when it’s warm to a loving welcome from his wife, and he enjoys playing with his children again. Yet, another villager has been called to military duty, and says he does not believe in what the nation is fighting for. (He may be the man we will see later hiding, hairy, dirty, in the woods.) German officers visit. The mayor, drunk, insistent, defends the war. “I’m not your friend. I’m the mayor,” he says, going on to make racist, paranoid comments. Franz is repelled: “The mask is off. I fear for my family.” Franz is perplexed, worried. Another man, speaking with Franz alone, asks, “Don’t they know evil when they see it?” Franz confides to the priest that he cannot serve in good conscience: innocent people are being killed; but the priest is wary of the consequences of such a decision, including, possibly, a death sentence for Franz. The priest says he will talk to the bishop. When Franz and Fani visit the cathedral, they hear a sermon about the hammer and the anvil, on how the anvil has its own power. (Is Hitler the hammer, the ordinary citizen the anvil?) Franz talks about personal responsibility in the face of official malfeasance, evil. The bishop tells Franz that Franz has a duty to the fatherland, speaking of obedience—but mentions that church bells are being melted for bullets. Franz thinks the church is afraid. A church worker, a painter, speaks of the artist as interpreter rather than participant, of painting suffering, without himself suffering; and he tells Franz that most people imagine themselves more heroic than they are. “Christ’s life is a demand,” the painter says. Franz’s neighbors, soon, begin to greet each other with the Hitler salute; but Franz refuses the salute, as he refused to contribute money or goods to the war effort, and when Franz’s objection to war service becomes known, the family begins to be ostracized—even the children are mistreated. The mayor calls Franz a traitor. Even Franz’s own mother find his stance hard to understand. Why is it hard to imagine another person’s genuine conscience and conviction as a positive thing?

“When have our prayers not been answered?” asks Fani, the first of many assertions of spiritual faith. An old man says, “What are you going to do Franz? They ask you to take an oath to the Antichrist. It’s a life without honor.” When Franz, in 1943, gets a letter to go for active duty, he is shaken and Fani distraught, suggesting he do his duty in a hospital rather than a battlefield. Franz, with other men, answers the official call, leaving his family, but when Franz fails to take an oath to Hitler he is handcuffed and interrogated. Franz, by letter, tries to reassure Fani, but he is questioned and harassed, transferred to Berlin; and Fani, in turn, invokes divine intervention and, also, mentions the mischief of their girls. The sublime and the mundane are part of her days; and Fani is shown, made to feel, the disapproval of her neighbors. Fani visits one military office to gain information about her husband, but is rebuffed; and, with her father, she visits another. A defense attorney, appointed by the court, thinks Franz should do medical work, and could, if he takes the loyalty oath. Both Franz and Fani call on their faith in a benevolent and divine authority; but whereas Franz asks for strength, Fani begins to accuse: “You do nothing.”

Grace? Someone at the local mill, an acquaintance of Franz, gives Fani back more grain than she brought. Franz meets again the friend he made during military training, Waldland; and, amid the cruel absurdity, there is genuine fellowship. A military tribunal takes Franz’s case, but as Franz persists in his conviction—he cannot do what he believes is wrong—Franz gets a death sentence; and, at last, when he and Fani meet, she says, “I love you. Whatever you do. Whatever comes. Do what is right.”

Surely this is one of Terrence Malick’s best films. Malick’s A Hidden Life allowed me to participate in a discourse about film that I had not had in a while. Changes in my own living situation, and in the world at large, have made shared events less likely—but this film brought some unity. When I, Daniel, mentioned it to people, they had immediate responses, whether or not they had seen it. In a brief note I wrote, “I think it’s one of Terrence Malick’s best films, one of this most significant: about the conscientious objection to war of an Austrian man during Hitler’s reign, the film does not require the imposition of philosophical posturing. The moral, intellectual, political, and practical implications of the situation are clear: right versus wrong, the individual versus society, life versus death. The casting and acting are good, persuasive. The imagery, as always, beautiful (and the sharp cutting, which finds characters in a slightly changed position startles, keeps one awake, alert). I thought it was a genuinely moving film—one that seemed philosophical without seeming to be about philosophy: it seemed to be about the character of a man and his society. Philosophy was integrated, inextricably, from the whole. Of course, Malick might be considered a spiritual filmmaker as much as a philosophical one (the yearning for contact with the divine is there, the prayers are there too). Have you seen A Hidden Life?”

One person responded: “I love A Hidden Life. We saw it in the cinema back when one could do that. I’m glad I did because it’s so visual. And I’m glad that they relied on his words. I was, to be honest, a bit frustrated with him being presented as so pious and saintly from the very beginning (he wasn’t, he was human), and think it would have been even more powerful if we got to see more of him before things started to unfold. But that’s a quibble, of course, and I love the film. Too, I was glad to have Malick move back to his true strengths.” He, the responder, a teacher of writing and a lover of philosophy, added, “You know probably that Malick did study philosophy with Stanley Cavell, and did an important translation of an essay by Heidegger?” I, Daniel, wrote back: “I did know that Malick studied philosophy, something that is brought up periodically in serious commentary on him (Heidegger and the phenomenology of perception—Merleau-Ponty, and existentialism and some consideration of Platonic ideals may be obvious references that come to mind), but with this film, A Hidden Life, and with Tree of Life, the spiritual yearning, the address to god, is so direct, the prayers so undeniable, that I am forced to think of Malick specifically as spiritual, if not religious, rather than (generally) philosophical. I cannot think of another art film director who seems as concerned with spiritual matters—concerned in a way that combines what “ordinary people” assume of spirituality and of what “serious thinkers” entertain. Bergman? Bresson? Scorsese?…The lead character, Franz, does seem connected to the church and to ethical questions in an unusual way (what other kind of man would have been ready to make such a stand?)—but others, his mother and the mayor acknowledge that Franz wasn’t always so, that he used to be a bit of a wild boy, getting into trouble, and his wife met him when he rode in on his motorcycle. He evolved—though we do not see the evolution. His mother thinks his wife changed him—it could be that loved settled and broadened him. The scenes with his wife and children, for me, were terrific: for much of the movie, the couple did not talk of love but you saw it. The warmth and joy of their relationship was its own revelation. Malick’s memory, or evocation, of some of the incidents of childhood are remarkable even in passing (the boys walking into the steam of DDT, or Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, in Tree of Life; the family playing a hide and seek game attuned to sound in A Hidden Life, little things that resonate). I had liked Days of Heaven and Tree of Life as personal favorites and I think A Hidden Life is now among them, if not surpassing them: seeing A Hidden Life, I was really pleased with the combining of the personal and the political, the historical. (I hope to see Thin Red Line again soon.)…The message of the film might be that when you have a lot of love in your own life it is hard to hate other people.

Someone else, an editor of a printed film journal, responding to my enthusiasm for A Hidden Life and Agora and Sorry to Bother You and other films, wrote me, “I haven’t seen A Hidden Life, but what you say makes me think I should give it a chance. Generally, I’m no fan of Malick, who is in my opinion one of the most overrated directors around. I loved Sorry to Bother You, clearly one of the smartest and most imaginative films lately, with its mix of Swiftian satire and classic revolutionary surrealism.” The responses by critics to Malick could be difficult to predict: some published comments found A Hidden Life clear, beautiful, rapturous, rhythmic, strange, powerful, revelatory; and others thought it abstract and arid, dwarfed by history, exploiting the easy drama of obvious evil, too illustrative of a thesis, constrained, impersonal. Brilliance, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder; and, if so, I recommend that more people behold The Thin Red Line and A Hidden Life.

(Submitted October 21, 2020)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 25, Issue 1 / January 2021 Film Reviews   covid-19   spiritual cinema   terrence malick   war film