Terrence Malick is one of the most schooled philosophers among Hollywood’s elite filmmakers. A translator of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, he studied with American philosopher Stanley Cavell at Harvard and British philosopher Gilbert Ryle at Oxford. As a director, he is known for his artistic ambitions, improvisational style, and daring innovations.

Although most of Catholic director’s movies have religious themes, it is still rather remarkable that his latest film, hailed at the Cannes Film Festival as “a return to form” for this maverick director, tells the story of a man Pope Benedict XVI declared a “blessed” 12 years ago: Franz Jägerstätter, the nearly forgotten Austrian peasant farmer who was guillotined by the Nazis in 1943.

Based upon true events and excerpts taken from Franz’s letters and journals, the film begins with historical footage of Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1939. Franz (played by August Diehl) and his wife, Frani (played by Valerie Pachner), seek to escape the madness by moving with their three children to an isolated farm. “I thought we could build our nest higher up — fly away like birds to the mountain.”

Deeply in love, they do escape for awhile, living in an Eden of natural beauty and family happiness.

But soon political animosities and rancor find their way up the mountain. There are arguments in the village, fights in the fields, and visits from Nazi officials. The mayor starts giving inflammatory speeches about ungrateful immigrants. Franz is sent to a military training camp, then later conscripted.

When he refuses to fight for Hitler, many in his village (even members of his own family) turn against him, and he is ultimately arrested and sent to prison in Berlin.

Although ostensibly a saint’s narrative, “A Hidden Life” is more truly a love story of married life. Frani’s struggle is every bit as heroic as her husband’s. And although Franz suffers physically after his arrest, he spiritually transcends that suffering relatively quickly while in prison, while Frani must endure the hard labor working the farm with her sister and the insults and humiliations visited upon her by former “friends.”

She prays for deliverance, but God appears to be deaf to her cries. Her well runs dry. She knocks, but the door doesn’t open. And when her sister complains, she snaps, “You don’t know real unhappiness. You have never been left by a man.”

Yet Frani never loses her faith in God or her marriage, and we overhear her praying for her husband, “Lord, you love him more than I, please give him courage, wisdom, and fortitude.”

Meanwhile, prison life is affecting Franz in unexpected ways. “Once you were in a rush,” he says to himself, ”always short of time. Now you have all the time you need. Once you judged others mercilessly.  Now you see your own weakness. These men have no friends. They’ve seen sorrow, shame, mistrust. ... What strong hearts.”

He is pressed again and again to “give up his pride” and sign a loyalty oath to Hitler. “What convinces you that you are right?  What gives you the right to judge us? Do you hear voices?”

St. Joan was asked these very same questions, and in George Bernard Shaw’s play, she says the voices she hears speak to everyone; it’s just that some people are not quiet enough inside themselves to hear them. Franz, however, doesn’t hear voices. He just feels that he ought not do something he knows is wrong.

One is reminded here of that inner feeling Socrates possessed that forbade him from speaking things he did not know to be true. But in the “Apology,” when he is facing death, the internal censor goes away, and Socrates feels free to speak about the particulars of his faith in the transcendent value of reason. 

This is when he declares, in a line actually paraphrased by Frani later in the film, that “no harm can come to a good man either in life or after death.”

At a point in the movie, Franz’s lawyer offers him his last chance to sign the oath. 

“Sign the paper and you will be free,” he says, to which Franz replies: “But I am free.” 

It’s a telling exchange, showing why saints are not easy people to live with. Their daily lives are living proof that selfless virtue doesn’t actually consist in the impossible ideals we so often associate with it. Rather, lives like theirs force us to consider whether we really believe the things we profess.  

Frani and Franz share their last moments the day before the execution surrounded by advisers and bored Nazi guards. It’s the climax of their relationship. Suffice to say (without spoiling the scene) this moving exchange reveals the heart of married devotion and makes it clear why Malick dedicated this film to his wife.

Malick reveals his own attitude toward saints and martyrdom through the character of Ohlendorf (played by Johan Leysen), a painter who is restoring frescoes in the church. 

“I paint all this suffering,” he confesses, “but I don’t suffer myself. What we [artists] do is create sympathy. We create admirers so we don’t have to see what happens to the truth. I paint their comfortable Christ with a halo. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Maybe someday I’ll have the courage to venture, but not yet. Someday I’ll paint the true Christ.”

Indeed, filming the supernatural naturalistically is a tricky business. You can’t see the invisible. Think of those television images of St. Pope John Paul II in prayer: little to see beyond what appears to be a man with a nagging headache.

Malick’s technique is to suggest God’s presence through sublime music — Bach, Górecki,  Psalms sung by the Boys Choir of Sweden — accompanied by dazzling cinematography capturing the natural beauty of rural Austria. 

He sets the focus at the very center of the lens, which distorts and elongates the images as they move to the edge of the screen. The result is that everything looks like portraiture rendered by some constantly moving, unseen hand. 

Add the sound of rushing water, interior reflections, and the call of birds over the classical music, and if one doesn’t sense God in these mountains, one at least senses the gravitas. So when a villager spits on Frani, we feel the impiety acutely as if the very stones were crying out. It’s a neat trick not many directors can achieve, nor even bother to attempt. 

Toward the end of the film, Frani offers her take on all that has expired in an inspired voiceover. (The real Frani is still alive at 94, and attended Franz’s beatification ceremony in 2007 in the cathedral of Linz, accompanied by her daughters.)

A closing epigram contains the last lines of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who have lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”