Guest review by Jonathan Dorst
In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul lays out a general principle of Christian citizenship: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
But, what about when the governing authority is the Third Reich, a government intent on ridding the world of all who are not of the ‘Aryan race’? Did Paul mean for the people of Germany and Austria during the Nazi regime to quietly fall in line and never put up a resistance?
Interestingly, just a few verses after the opening verses of Romans 13, Paul writes, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rm 13:5). Why would he mention the conscience if he intended for obedience to be automatic? And, to further complicate (or, depending on your perspective, to further balance) things, how does one reconcile Paul’s later admonition to keep the 10 Commandments as the law of love, and that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor”? (Rm 13:10).
These are the moral questions that director Terrence Malick is asking in his latest film, A Hidden Life. The film is a portrait of a real-life conscientious objector, Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic Austrian farmer who refused to serve the cause of Hitler and the Nazi Party during World War II. Much like the more well-known figure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor who was actually part of an assassination plot to kill Hitler), Jägerstätter finds the courage to resist from his faith.
This is Terrence Malick’s ninth feature film, spanning five decades that began with 1973’s Badlands. It is his best film since 2011’s The Tree of Life and his most accessible (and most linear) film since 1978’s Days of Heaven. All of Malick’s trademark stylistic touches are present in A Hidden Life: gently rolling Steadicam, an emphasis on the beauty of nature, a compassionate gaze towards his subjects, limited dialogue with much of the story told through visuals, voiceover, and a judicious use of classical music. But, whereas, some of Malick’s recent films have felt almost like a parody of his style (I’m looking at you, Song to Song), here his style is perfectly suited for the patient viewer to truly contemplate the difficulty of Franz’s choices, and by implication, the experience of all conscientious objectors who are made to be martyrs.
A Hidden Life brings to mind the classic 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, as well as the more recent Silence (2016) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016), and, to some degree, Braveheart (1995). What those films accomplish through dialogue and confrontations, Malick accomplishes through quiet interactions and visual symbols. And like A Man for All Seasons and Silence, the character of God is questioned even as the duty of men is at the forefront. When a priest in A Hidden Life says, “God only cares about the heart,” we have to ask ourselves whether God is a pragmatic, ends-justifies-the-means kind of deity, or whether He calls us to a radical obedience in both body and soul.
While we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight of what the proper response to Hitler should have been, there’s no doubt that our choices would have been immeasurably harder had we lived in the uncertainty of the time before Hitler was defeated. The best movies call us to confront our own character and beliefs, and A Hidden Life gives us the gifts of time and story to help us ask ourselves who we are and who we might be when put in an impossible situation. It’s one of the best films of the year and one of the best uses of three hours that I spent all year.
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