Franz doesn’t struggle with not being an accomplice to Nazi evil. What’s more difficult for him is how he knows that his decision compromises Fani and his daughters. All the tools that totalitarian regimes use to enforce complicity are on display here, with the most insidious being how they shamelessly implicate the families of anyone who resists. Nice family you’ve got there, shame if anything happened to them. In the Nazi eugenics game, Franz’ status as a citizen gives him protections that his neighbors to the East won’t be granted, but the townspeople are happy to pick up the slack, making the Jagerstatters’ lives as difficult as possible. Franz’ refusal implicates them for their acquiescence, calling them out as either cowards who know better or monsters who are gleefully going along with a thing that their former friend insists is wrong.
As these more subtle methods of enforcement give way to traditional confinement and abuse, the Nazi’s cleverly aim at Franz’ perceived high ground. Fascism remakes history in its own image, and they insist to Franz that he will not be remembered or praised for his choices. He will be fully erased from the story of the Third Reich, not even worthy of a report up the chain of command. There is something terrifying about an individual’s inherent smallness being insisted upon by the state, but as a devout Catholic, Franz doesn’t consider himself small. Infused with the Holy Spirit, his conviction is a vision of what Christians would look like if they were actually Christ-like, willing to experience worldly punishment in a righteous cause even if they could make it all go away with a single utterance. A Hidden Life is no advertisement for the Catholic church, depicted here as cowardly and cloistered in their airy cathedrals, but the film wouldn’t exist without a healthy regard for spiritual attunement, for finding resolve somewhere other than one’s physical body.
When A Hidden Life is at its best, it’s a soaring and joyful experience. Howard’s score is the best of 2019, one of those few whose melodies are instantly evocative of the characters and their inner lives. Malick’s direction is tactile in the extreme, especially with the beautifully-shot farm chores that take up too little of the film’s considerable runtime. There’s no one better at capturing happy families. Diehl and Pachner have incredible physical chemistry, such that they can’t keep their hands to themselves in the good times and greedily reach for each other in the bad. All of this and more should be enough for the viewer to coast through the slow parts of A Hidden Life, but those parts are so slow and so long. The film turns into an epistolary back-and-forth for almost a whole hour, and there’s not enough in those letters to justify that amount of time. A Hidden Life is perfectly timed as a film about how difficult and vital true resilience and resistance can be, but the film shouldn’t have to work this hard to sell its elemental power. I’ve bought in from the second Howard’s score starts and Malick insists on pitching for another 179 minutes. B