A Hidden Life Review

In the book The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Meir Sternberg has a chapter on gaps in stories. He says that

“To understand a literary work, we have to answer, in the course of reading, a series of such questions as: What is happening or has happened, and why? What connects the present event or situation to what went before, and how do both relate to what will probably come after? What are the features, motives, or designs of this or that character? How does he view his fellow characters? And what norms govern the existence and conduct of all?”

And it is in answering these questions that we will make sense of the work. But the problem is that

“the text will reveal how few of the answers to these questions have been explicitly provided there...From the viewpoint of what is directly given in the language, the literary work consists of bits and fragments to be linked and pieced together in the process of reading: it establishes a system of gaps that must be filled in.”

And Sternberg notes that this is true with all stories, not just complicated ones. For instance, he tells a Hebrew nursery rhyme that goes like this

“Little Jonathan,” goes like this: Every day, that’s the way Jonathan goes out to play. Climbed a tree. What did he see? Birdies: one, two, three! Naughty boy! What have we seen? There’s a hole in your new jeans!”

We assume that Jonathan got the hole in his jeans from the tree, but that is nowhere said, we had to piece that together.

These gaps are especially important in a film that deals with hiddennes. So let’s look at Terrence Malick’s film, A Hidden Life, and fill in some hidden gaps.

On its surface A Hidden Life is about an Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, his wife and three daughters during World War II. The film follows the struggle of the family as Franz becomes a conscientious objector who is jailed and then executed. The title of the film is taken from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. The quote in full reads,

“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.”

The patent meaning of the film is that the hidden life upon which the good of the world is dependent is Franz and his family. But how Malick directs this hidden life reveals depths of his art and the art of Franz’s life.

There are many things hidden in this film. Perhaps most strikingly, World War II itself is hidden. While we see some historical footage of Hitler and the SS, Malick chose to show nothing of the war proper, no warfare, no fighting. The most obvious and popular aspects of the war he has hidden from us.

He has also hidden heads. Yes, literal heads. In a strange compositional decision, Malick crops many heads out of the frame throughout the whole movie, hiding heads.

Malick will also hide other things that we would expect to see. He hides the bishop. In multiple scenes in the local church we never see the priest in the church. In the jail the guard will say that no one knows what goes on behind these walls. And at the end of the movie, while it is implied that Franz is beheaded, that is hidden from us.

Malick intentionally hid and showed specific things because the main message of the film is that some of the most important things are hidden, and we ought to attend to those things. But if the most important things are hidden, then we need a guide to help us see them. Malick hides things, even things that we expect to see, in order to show us the things that we ought to see.

By withholding the war from us, Malick is guiding our attention to the good that we ought to be seeing, a farmer and his wife.

But what about the heads? Malick hides heads from us out of the necessity of the height of the camera. The average height of the camera throughout the film is not at the eye-level of an adult, but the eye level of a child. The implied viewer of the film is a child.

And this is a brilliant decision because some things are naturally hidden from a child. But also, as Jesus taught us, some things are more easily seen by children. Jesus said that we must become like a child and Malick films in a way to help in that becoming.

The Character of the Hidden Life

If Malick wants us to look away from the patent things and look at the hidden things, that is Franz and his family, what are we supposed to see in them? What particularly about his life ought we to notice? We’ll look at 5 aspects of the character of the hidden life.

1. Church

We see many religious things: clergy, prayers, images, feasts, processionals and churches. And while this may give the feeling of Christian piety and devotion, Malick will hide some things in order to direct our attention to more important hidden things.

In multiple scenes, Franz is shown working in the church, attending to the graveyard and helping in renewing the artwork on the walls. While the priest conducts festivals and processionals, and the churches are ornate, Franz is the only one literally building the church, upkeeping it. Interestingly we most often see the priest outside of the church. And like his later conscientious objection, he will do so almost alone, without priest or friend, silently building and beautifying the church, from the high to the low, the art on the walls of the church to the grass in the graveyard, from his idyllic home, high in the mountains, to the bottom of jail, kissing the shoes of a guard.

2. Conflict

Hitler has become the paradigm of evil, to the point of cliche or abstraction. And the danger of evil becoming abstract is that it ceases to be applicable and accosting. We don’t fight against a concept. We fight against men.

Malick reifies the evil of Hilter by transposing it or revealing its origin in ordinary life with ordinary people. The evil is, in the description of Hannah Arendt, banal. World War II told through a town.

All the people in the town are angry at Franz’s wife, they spit at her, yell, steal from her garden. The only fight we see in a film about World War II is between Franz and a friend.

With people, like Hitler, that have become highly abstract often their path to evil is ignored in light of the weight of their evil. Malick shows us that Hitler came to be not by the sheer will of an individual but by a thousand hidden looks and words spoken against a neighbor.  

3. Creation

The theater of war is on the soil, across rivers and ravines, fields and groves. And while we see all these places, Malick shows us a different interaction with creation. While the world was destroying the earth, a hidden family was cultivating it, making it fruitful, running over it not to end life but to embrace it, playing on it, loving on it. In a delightful irony the daughters play fight on the earth, fighting that actually produces life and love.

The only death that happens takes place in a building, a building of a more inhumane and brutalist aesthetic. Malick locates death away from creation in a building as if to say that the nature of the Nazi is unnatural, unable to cope and live peaceably and skillfully in creation. Their actions are anti-nature, so much so that it would be improper to act in such ways in the world, so they must construct another building, another world in which to act.

4. Death

Malick hides war as well as death. We never see death. We never actually see Franz die. He is brought to the guillotine, and then the camera cuts. And as with all the other hiding, Malick hides to reveal something else. And what Malick wants us to give attention to instead is what follows or what replaces the time that would have been taken up with watching a beheading.

Instead of a beheading we see a wedding and farming, two images that are the quintessence of life, two actions that fecund, producing children and food. Malick is saying that while we could be attending to the grotesque, the end of life, at that same moment we could instead attend to the good and the beautiful, beginnings of life.

Malick’s film is a lesson in attention. Often what is most obvious is not what we ought to look at, and what is hidden holds the goodness. In turn, like Malick we need to hide things and pay attention to the places where God is sowing life and liveliness, even if they are hidden.

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