“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Though set in Austria in the turbulent years of 1939-43, Terrence Malick’s latest offering is not a film about World World II. At least, not the WWII films to which we are accustomed. There are no hidden rooms sheltering Jews, underground networks resisting the Nazis, or storming the beaches of Normandy.
If anything, A Hidden Life takes pains to be the opposite. Aside from a few minutes toward the end, this film takes place almost exclusively in the mountains of rural Austria, where Franz and Fani harvest fields of wheat by hand.
Theirs is a simple life, a remarkably commonplace existence, brimming with passion for each other and deep fondness for their children. And for almost all of the nearly three-hour runtime, the camera lingers over this life like a father’s gaze lingers on his children.
But the war rumbles closer and Franz is called up for training. France surrenders before his unit is sent out and he returns to the farm, where he confides to Fani that if he is called up again he doesn’t think he can go. All Austrian soldiers are required to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, something he can’t do.
Still, to refuse would be to face certain imprisonment and probable death, and the consequences to his family would be great.
It’s a difficult question with no answers, only possible outcomes, and Malick gives us plenty of time to wrestle with our own thoughts, as we watch our protagonist wrestle with his.
In the end, a man dies. A woman is widowed. Three children are fatherless.
And for what?
I used to think that the Hebrew God was marking his territory when he commanded Moses to remove his sandals—”this place is holy, respect it.”
But now I wonder if she was reminding Moses, not of the sacredness of a single burning bush, but but of a larger truth hidden in plain sight—that all around us is holy ground. That we are surrounded by the sacred, that the simplest acts and most commonplace lives are holy reflections of the divine.