A Hidden Life

Reviewed by Roger Gook

So, the film shown at the Keswick Film Club last Sunday, 'A Hidden Life', was our last for this season. The director, Terrence Malick, is a legend amongst his followers for his highly original films, beautifully shot, which usually delve into the anguish of the human soul. His detractors dismiss his films as pretentious, self-indulgent and overlong – a view that I have some sympathy with.

In this film we are spared many of his mannerisms, giving a beautiful and nuanced true story of an Austrian farmer who refused to swear allegiance to the Nazi party during the war in 1943. His objection is moral rather than spiritual or political, although his reasons are never made explicit. The first part of the film sets the scene of his life as a farmer in an Alpine valley and has an almost documentary feel as we see the simple, hard but very rich life of the rural community. After he is taken away to prison a more vicious side of the community is seen as his wife and children are ostracised.

In prison he is beaten and bullied, with the expected taunts of being a traitor and a coward. The director shows the military authorities in a surprisingly humane light as they make genuine efforts to understand his objection and give him a chance to take the oath. As he is driven away to be executed the bullying corporal doffs his hat in a moving sign of respect.

As much as I was moved and impressed by the film, I was aware of two aspects which I felt were flaws. The first was a perennial personal bugbear of over-intrusive background music. Here the director gave it full head, with heavenly choirs and swelling strings at all the more moving moments. Why, when the scene was set so beautifully visually, does he detract from that with unrelated music? The other was the strange decision to have the dialogue in English. The actors were all Austrian or German, and so the speech was delivered in English with a German inflection. Even stranger was using German for all the authority characters. There must have been some directorial decision on this for reasons that elude me.

The core dilemma the film poses was the universal question asked of martyrs through the ages – should you stick to your principles when you cause pain and suffering for others. Here we had someone who accepted death as result of his unyielding belief, but in doing so condemned his wife and three small children to a life of hardship. Was he a hero or just selfish? The film posed the question but left us to answer it for ourselves.