Since 2005, Malick’s films have been impressionistic, featuring non-linear plots, voiceovers, and almost exclusively natural light. A Hidden Life features similar lighting and attention to detail, but has a linear plot. Franz and Fani Jägerstätter live in Sankt Radegund, a village in Upper Austria, where they farm and raise their girls. Their life is close to nature and close to God. Again and again we are bathed in the warmth of hardwood walls and the cool green of misty mountains. We see the fibers of thick wool on sheep, the individual grains on stalks of wheat, water splashing down a mountain and through a wooden trough to a gristmill. Much of the film’s dialogue comes from the Jägerstätters’ letters, which have since been published. I expected the film to be the story of a man, but it was really the story of a marriage: a paean to the beauty of ordinary love and the children that are its fruit—a celebration of the goods of this world and a reminder that they are not enough.
A Hidden Life is also a powerful argument against the modern age. The Jägerstätters’ nest high above the trees is in many respects still part of the old world, on which modernity is ever encroaching. In Letters from Lake Como, the German theologian Romano Guardini revisited the Northern Italian land of his birth. That world, which the Jägerstätters shared, was a world of real culture, of “elevation above nature” due to man’s work, “yet decisive nearness to it.”
Guardini thought that through industrialization, that world of humanity was being replaced by one of inhumanity: “I saw machines invading the land that had previously been the home of culture. I saw death overtaking a life of infinite beauty, and I felt that this was not just an external loss that we could accept and remain who we were. Instead, a life, a life of supreme value that can arise only in the world that we have long since lost, was beginning to perish here.” Malick underscores the way that death is both technological and ideological. As the film progresses, the sound of the scythe is replaced by the sound of the locomotive. The traditional “Grüss Gott” gives way to “Heil Hitler.”
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