There's an early scene in Terrence Malick's masterful new film - what I would call a moving painting - where the central character Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant farmer from an isolated small mountainous village who refuses to take an oath to Hitler and fight in the German army, is talking to an older man who is restoring paintings in the local Catholic church.
Franz, a devout Roman Catholic, is deeply disturbed by the rise of Hitler and the thought of participating in his immoral killing machine.
The older man tells Franz - who has already been admonished that he has a duty to defend the fatherland (homeland) - that he makes his living painting pretty holy pictures for the culturally conditioned parishioners for whom God and country are synonymous. He says,
"I paint their comfortable Christ with a halo over his head. We love him, that's enough. Someday I'll paint a true Christ."
Malick's "someday" has arrived with "A Hidden Life," where the older Malick shows the younger Malick - and us - a moving picture of what experience has taught him is the complex essence of a true and simple Christ: out of love of God and all human beings to refuse to kill.
To watch this film is to undergo a profound experience, an experiment with truth and non-violence, a three-hour trial (Latin: experimentum - trial).
While Franz is eventually put on trial by the German government, it is we as viewers who must judge ourselves and ask how guilty or innocent are we for supporting or resisting the immoral killing machine of our own country now. Hitler and his Nazis were then, but we are faced with what Martin Luther King called "the fierce urgency of now." Many Americans surely ask with Franz, "What has happened to the country that we love?" But how many look in the mirror and ask, "Am I a guilty bystander or an active supporter of the United States' immoral and illegal wars all around the world that have been going on for so many years under presidents of both parties and have no end? Do I support the new cold war with its push for nuclear war with its first strike policy? Do I support, by my silence, a nuclear holocaust?"
I say that "A Hidden Life" is a moving painting because its form and content cannot be separated. A true artist, Malick realizes that what non-artists call form or style is the content; they are one. The essence of the story is in the telling; in a film in the showing.
The cinematography by Jörg Widmer, a longtime Malick collaborator, is therefore key. It is exquisitely beautiful as he paints with swiftly moving light the mountains and streams of the Austrian countryside, even as the storm clouds with their thunder and lightning roll in across the mountains. The ever-recurring dramatic scenes of numinous nature and the focus on the sustaining earth from which our food comes and to which we all return and in which Franz, his wife Fani, and their young daughters romp and roll and plant and harvest and dirty their hands is the ground beneath our feet, and when we look, we see its marriage to the sky, the clouds, the light, the shadows, which in their iridescent interplay of light and darkness beseech us to interrogate our existence and ask with Franz what is right and what is wrong and what is our purpose on this beautiful earth.
That question is especially focused when between the beauty comes the terror in the form of interspersed documentary footage of Hitler, his fanatical followers, and horrifying scenes of war and violence.
Like the movie, I think you would agree that we are always moving, asking, wondering, if we are not the living dead. All is now, and now is nevermore, as it disappears into the darkness behind us. The light is always pointing into the future, so we can see where we are going. We don't look at the light but by the light, as the great South African preacher, Alan Storey, puts it. But what is our light?
Where, asked Nietzsche, was the lightning before it flashed? To which the answer comes: it wasn't. It is its flashing. Only a doing, an act, just like love, not a thing but action. Just like the word God, theόs in Greek, which has no vocative sense, as Roberto Calasso has pointed out in Literature and the Gods. "Theόs has a predictive function: it describes something that happens." God is a verb; God is happening. God is happening when humans are happening, acting. Only then. "What you do (or don't) speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say," was the way Emerson phrased it.
The filmic interplay between Franz's agonized moral dilemma, his action, and the embodiment of Christ in the natural world, the body of Christ (Corpus Christi, not the erstwhile American nuclear submarine by that name), is its genius, one that might be lost on one impatient for action and garrulous dialogue.
"A Hidden Life" is far from Hollywood. Silence and natural beauty permeate it, as if to say the only way to grasp the mechanized and conscienceless brutality of Hitler or today's killers and grasp why some resist it, is to enter a contemplative space where the love of the incarnated world awakens our consciences to our responsibility to our sisters and brothers everywhere.
For in the silences one can also hear the screams of the millions of innocent victims beseeching us to heed their cries and intercede.