Hidden in Plain Sight
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life might stand as the most Christian movie I’ve ever seen.
Exquisitely meditative—yet so often splashed with the cold-water shock of reality—Malick’s World War II epic paints a pure, vivid portrait of what it means to walk the narrow way. Mountainside glories and blue-gray canopies frame the story of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer, and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) as they work their plot of heaven on Earth.
The pair live content to make beautiful babies, tend the land, and enjoy the company of their neighbors. A slow and growing storm blows through their modest existence, as war lingers and Franz faces the prospect of active military service. Duty doesn’t trouble the faithful farmer; but he cannot stomach the idea of killing innocents and fellow children of God.
What’s more, active duty means pledging an oath to the devil himself—Adolf Hitler. Franz cannot abide the thought of signing his name to Hitler’s inhuman agenda. Malick captures the gravity of Franz’s dilemma and the consequences of refusal—for himself, his family and his community—in tortured glances and a battery of questions with no good answers.
A Hidden Life, like so much of Malick’s work, revels in the goodness of creation; before screening the film, our projectionist confessed she wanted to dive into the green grass alongside Franz and Fani. Especially in its second half, the film also expressly bears the torment of sin and groans for redemption.
A Hidden Life is saturated with gestures of devotion. Only Malick could make a jailhouse beating feel like a prayer, or treat the looks between a husband and wife like a silent liturgy. For all A Hidden Life says about love and fidelity, one sequence—easily lost to more painful moments—particularly stuck to my soul.
As Franz turns his problems over, he visits a painter rendering haloed images of Jesus across the canvas that is the village church. In a monologue of lament, the artist discredits the goodness of his own work. Artists like him encourage “admirers, not followers,” he says, reassuring disciples of a convenient Christ who never demands they change.
Confessing, yet never really repenting, the artist promises, “Someday I will paint the true Christ.” Echoes of Augustine attend his words; make me a vessel for complicated, defiantly holy art—but not yet.
The message of A Hidden Life doesn’t hinge on these words, yet everything which comes before and after enfold them, setting Malick’s movie—and even his career—in context. The filmmaker’s voice comes through the artist’s lament; this is the romantic at his most realistic about his place in the world’s order. While men and women like Franz steer through troubled moral waters, artists like Malick may choose to create works of beauty that rarely test an audience’s virtue.
Malick protests a little too much; A Hidden Life reveals the true Christ, both in Franz’s sacrifice and the divine consolation he finds. The film knows the time it portrays and the timing of its release, subtly conveying a message that is anything but. Resistance is holy work, it says. And yet his point should pierce the heart of everyone who has ever turned a phrase, set brush to canvas or given a melody its shape.
Beauty never needs to make excuses for itself. The God who calls light and dark and man and beast good ushered in a world where utility never gets the last word. Any and every stunning thing we make testifies to his good design. In Christ’s economy there is no secular or sacred, high art or low art.
But the inherent value assigned to beauty doesn’t excuse us from wrestling with the sorts of questions Malick asks himself. We need clear eyes to see whether what we create obscures the true Christ or reveals him. We don’t have to champion a certain message to glorify God in our art, but are still held accountable for the messages we send.
Does our art give quarter to complacency and confirmation bias? Does it smile and send us on our way without asking if we loved our neighbors as ourselves? Or, at its best and most realized, does our creativity draw facets of Christ’s multifaceted wisdom into clearer relief—even if the fuller portrait remains somewhat shrouded in mystery?
Malick never sounds a call to plain speech and against poetry. Instead, he scolds the creator who only churns out stamps of approval. My lifetime spent within the church holds many memories of easy, artless comfort. Sermons that sound like pop songs, entire methods of “discipleship” that insulate the middle-class American life rather than stimulate or agitate. May I never go back.
What I crave instead is art—and preaching—that bids a man come and die. To his ego, for Christ’s sake. To shallow consolation, for the joys found in losing yourself to a richer beauty. The Jesus I long to paint with my words calls me to grip his hand tight as I walk through the valley of the shadow of physical, spiritual and moral death—just like Franz.
The Christ I worship does not smile upon me despite myself; rather, he sets his beauty upon me because he knows and loves me particularly. I pray my readers absorb something of the spirit of that Christ, if not always the substance. Jesus sings through whatever is beautiful and true, not just songs or films that repeat his name to ward off evil.
Malick proves that with A Hidden Life, creating a film that is neither black nor white yet adorns itself with every other shade. He creates rapturous beauty and tempts us to roll around in the grass, all while coaxing us to carry our crosses. We experience beauty not by chasing martyrdom, Malick says, but by following all that is good and graceful to its natural end. All the way to its maker.
Those of us who create for a living know we will never make the equivalent of a Malick film every time out—if ever. But A Hidden Life sets an ideal before us. Beauty which merely admires, which shimmers from a safe place, will always have a certain shelf life. Art which endures follows close enough to see the lines on the savior’s face.