For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light… everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.”
– Ephesians 5:8-14
What is the meaning of the darkness?
At the core of this question in A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s latest film, is that familiar visual sense that has come to define his style. Here he weaves darkness and light as both literal cinematic functions and metaphorical human experience together into a marvelous and uncertain dance of existential longing. As a big fan of Malick, particularly the equally contemplative and sensory experience of the Tree of Life, what I found in his latest work is an unexpected maturity and a willingness to ground his artistic vision in something a bit more accessible.
What might be most profound about the journey that A Hidden Life invites us to take as viewers into this inevitable and uncertain dance is that it resists the urge to paint this as a singular trajectory from the darkness to light. As one character surmises late in this story, even when it is raining the sun doesn’t stop shining. The implication is that we don’t always see the sun in light of our experiences, leaving us to wrestle, to question and to doubt when the darkness grows.
Which is precisely were we find the family whom occupy the heart of this film. A family of faith and optimism suddenly caught between the ever pressing darkness and the seemingly distant light. Faith exists for this family as a constant, a given, a gift. But God’s faithfulness also proves to be allusive, distant at difficult to understand. This is the internal struggle, the inward journey this family is forced to take and carry in the face of this darkness.
Where The Darkness Hides The Light
Hanne Johnson, a ministry leader in the Covenant Church of Canada recently penned a Lenten devotional on the verse I quote above, and in that devotional she writes concerning this imagery of the light and the darkness,
“The most beautiful thing about this light imagery is that darkness explained is the absence of light. Not the other way around. Once there is light, there is no longer darkness,” for as it says “Everything that is illuminated becomes light.”
In reflecting on the story of A Hidden Life, its images flowing through my memory and my meditation, I found this truth about the nature of light and darkness to be helpful. Because often what makes the darkness most difficult is when the darkness is all that we can see. And the reason the darkness is all we see is because the darkness comes in our suffering.
In the case of the film, suffering becomes the overarching theme, one that the film returns to over and over again as the source of the darkness. In suffering they try to make sense of their faith, coming back to the imposing reality of this darkness as one that is desperate for answers and unclear even of the right questions as it invades their world, their village, and the choices they are forced to make in one direction or another.
In the midst of the suffering the darkness appears to veil God from their sight. What invades the darkness though is this deeply ingrained sense or spirit led nudging that the light still shine and wants to unveil God to them in all God’s mystery and love.
Where The Darkness Reveals The Light
As the Mayor of the village laments (and then professes) early on in the film, “This is what happens when the world dies. Men survive. But here (in this village, in them) life is gone. Their reasoning for living gone.” This is why they seemingly must choose to look out for them selves regardless of what this might mean for the lives of others.
The backdrop for the story in A Hidden Life is Nazi rule and Hitlers reign, with the persecution of those deemed inferior and a hindrance to their prospering the thing that is immediately informing their quiet Austrian village life and something they are forced to embrace. The above lament from the Mayor quickly turns into an unsettling form of defiant proclamation, causing the Mayor of a small Austrian village to remind the villagers that there are those he believes would impede on their ability to live good and happy lives, and thus they must support them in their efforts for their sake.
This causes tension when Franz, the father and husband of the family that lies at the centre of this story, is unable to reconcile his experience as a soldier and the unjust treatment of others with his appeal for a comfortable and happy life. He is a conscientious objector, and for him, Nazi rule is not something they can ignore and is something that stands opposed to the tenants of his (and their) faith.
And so he decides to stay true to his convictions, what he believes to be right and true according to God, virtue and conscience. Only what persists is the reality that the more they attempt to believe in and stand by what is right, the more suffering that seems to befall them, a reality made all the more prevalent as they continue to look out at the suffering of the world wondering how and why God would allow such darkness to exist and persist in the first place.
Where are you God when all we see is darkness.
As Hanne so aptly wrote in her devotional , to see and experience the light is to have it inform the darkness, and in doing so expose it to the light. This is the truth that A Hidden Life wants to point us towards and help uncover. In one sense, to make sense of their suffering they must learn to see the light. In another sense they must learn to embrace the darkness.
This is where we find the different imagery in the film gaining in power. The ringing of the bell is at once indicative of the darkness (as the Priest says, it is literally being melted down and made into a bullet) and indicative of hope. The rain is what hides the sun but it is also what sustains them, sustains creation and fills their well. The train reflects the heart and innocence of childhood and Franz’s memories, but also the horrors of his current reality.
Malick brilliantly weaves these interconnected realities into the fabric of the film itself. Some of the most powerful moments are the subtlest ones, be it the image of their child in Fanie’s (the wife and mother) arms laughing even as we see her turn her head in silent, sobbing tears. Or the romanticism of the letters Franz writes from prison to Fani, imagining a more hopeful situation at home even when we as viewers see her and the kids literally trudging through mud in isolated desperation.
If their suffering brings darkness, the power that the darkness gains over the course of this film becomes visceral, tangible and wrenching to watch. The proclamations of faith appear to give way to Gods growing silence in the midst of the “why” questions. But where there is darkness there is also light, and the darkness is what allows the light to shine even brighter.
Perhaps one of the most poignant and memorable scenes in the film for me is one where we encounter a tracking shot that takes us through the halls of the prison, imagining God Himself speaking as the suffering gives way to an elongated prayer being prayed over Franz. The way this is shot, elevating our gaze upwards and framed against the narrow confines of these passageways allows the confines of the prison walls to open up to the sun in this grand display of the light breaking through and igniting the darkness in literal and metaphorical ways. This visual piece affirms the films prevailing and hopeful position that even when we cant see God, we can believe that God is at work redeeming this world, restoring its brokenness, and healing the pain.
And yet, even while this hope emerges, what becomes clear is that the darkness is the very thing being illuminated in its wake. It is not being ignored and it is not being done away with. To see the light we must peer into the darkness. And as Ephesians suggests, what is being formed out of this darkness is us, the faithful witness of God to a hurting world.
Where The Light forms Us Against the Darkness
Where the question of the darkness begins in A Hidden Life with the presence of suffering, God emerges through through the darkness as the light that is shaping these characters day by day in the mud and the muck and the mire. This sentiment grows from a statement like “there is a difference between the kind of suffering we cant avoid and the kind we choose” towards the realization that it is “better to suffer injustice than to do it.” The further we get into the story the more we learn about what the darkness looks like when illuminated by the light. It is the same kind of progression that we see in the painter as he paints the church walls with images of Christ. “I paint their comfortable Christ,” he confesses, adding “how do I paint that which I do not know.” The paintings avoid the darkness and thus miss the witness of the light, leading him to profess, “someday I’ll paint the true Christ.” While the darkness allows the light to bear witness in us to the hope of faith and the the longing of our soul, this longing to know Christ and to be people of the light is what allows God to shine in the darkness of others.
I love how the prayer that frames that tracking shot through the prison halls, God’s prayer over Franz, expresses itself once again in the form of Fani visiting her husband now in prison as the darkness looms larger than ever. Her words are simple. “I love you and I will be with you always.” It is a prayer that echos God’s own promise to her and to them. Later on she confesses, for as much as she loves him God loves Him more, and for as hard s it is to believe He is capable of bringing His peace and comfort into any situation and in the way that she so desperately asks for and needs. This prayer broke me, because it’s the kind of prayer one can only pray over another, and one that is nearly impossible to pray alone. It reminds me of how grateful I am to know that in my darkness others are and have prayed for me.
The Illumination of the Light To Transform and Reform
This is the power of the light. As the quote from Eliot reads in a caption at the end of the film,
“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 lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
This quote makes A Hidden Life for me one of the most powerful witnesses of faith I have experienced on screen, precisely because of the way it strips us of that singular aversion we so often carry towards believe in God- the desire to do things on our own and in our own way and by our own means. We believe we know best, and when life doesn’t turn out the way we want we blame God, imaging the darkness and hiding the light. We give up, choosing the easier path, the path of least resistance. And we give in to the idea that God is not at work in the world and we are left to fend for ourselves.
The film begins with the honest admission that while we might be capable of dreaming of a better world for ourselves, we cannot ignore the darkness in others. The darkness is ever present in a world which was created for good, and those God desires to heal and to redeem are the reason God calls us to be the light. To ignore this truth, or to believe we can live beyond this by our own strength and means, is to live dangerously and foolishly.
Likewise, as one character says to Frani midway through the film, you have been abandoned (seemingly by her husband, God and the town), so the answer given to her is to do it (live life) on her own, in her own strength. Do what the others could not and rise above it. This approach is proven equally fallible and foolish in this story, because what the light unveils to her and within her is that she cannot do this on her own. So much of the film’s images depict her in relationship to others, relationships that have been hindered by peoples blindness and are in need of God’s love, or relationships that emerged from their willingness to enter into her world and her struggle. And in the context of the story these relationships are what point her, Franz and us as viewers towards God as the one who is with us every step of the way, the one who has entered into our story and shared in our struggle.
The third tendency is to deal with the darkness by anointing ourselves the necessary judge and jury of what is evil and what is good. This is a stridently humanist approach to the world’s problems. But Malicks treatment of Franz guides his conscious action to do good towards a judgment of himself first rather than an interest in judging others. He sees the darkness first in himself, and thus is driven to love others in their darkness because of this. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film he is asked if he judges those who have committed great acts of injustice. His answer is no, because that would leave him equally undeserving of this grace he so desperately needs.
This idea that society can be good on it’s own, that we don’t need anything else but our own will and determination, and that we have the right to be the judge and jury of the world in all things good and evil, these things are present in every facet of society today. It is a bi-product of deciding that one (or the world) has no need for a God. The declaration of A Hidden Life is that we do stand in need, and living as if we don’t is what gives the darkness its power. For Franz, to give so completely of himself in the midst of his suffering even when he has no confidence or assurance that what he is doing will make any difference and and bring any change at all is what allows the light to illuminate the darkness. It strips his suffering of the power to defeat him precisely because it places it at the feet of the God who loves Him unconditionally. In faith he recognizes his own need for God and trusts that as God’s light in a world of darkness, God can and will be working through him to bring love, peace, comfort to a world in need. This is the most compelling witness, one based on on need, trust and willingness.
Over and against the loudness of those who believe they can and will change the world by their own efforts, this film finds hope in the many unknown voices whom might not make the headlines but make up that wonderful cloud of witnesses to the reality of God’s love and grace being poured out in the face of the darkness. We can trust that God is still working in the world to make all things new once again, that is the wonder and the hope of this witness. And in their willingness to trust even in the midst of their doubts and their weakness, in their willingness to step out in faith and live a life of conviction, God has and is using them and us to illuminate the darkness for the sake of revealing the light of hope, love, renewal and restoration. A vital message for the dark times we face as a world even today.