“Don’t they know evil when they see it? We are used to it now. Crime. No shame.”
This is a line spoken by an actor in the exquisitely poetic and heart wrenching film A Hidden Life, written and directed by the cinematic genius Terrence Malick.
The film is based on true events that took place in a small mountain hamlet in the early 1940s in Austria.
It is a love story between a husband and his wife, as they respond to a changing political climate that shatters peace and beauty in their idyllic village.
The husband is called upon to join the Nazi army to show his patriotism to the fatherland. While in basic training he realizes the evil that is being perpetrated in the name of nationalism and love of country.
When he returns he decides to take a stand. He becomes a “Conscientious Objector” refusing to accept Hitler as his overlord.
As we watch the protagonist sacrifice everything to stay true to himself and his steadfast belief, the film intercuts to footage of Hitler revealing how overwhelmingly popular he was in Germany. Old black and white archival footage shows the German public’s adulation and awe of his persona, vision and rhetoric.
The filmmaker also shows rare color footage of Hitler playing with a child, and being social with female companions, revealing a human side to the man.
Terrence Malick is reclusive and rarely gives interviews or talks in public about his work. To me it was clear that he was trying to say something about the times we live in, through this deeply intimate story set in the past.
We do not have mass murder and fear on the scale of Nazi Germany taking place anywhere in the world today. But there is no dearth of autocrats and dictators channeling aspects of “The Great Dictator” around the world.
In Russia Vladimir Putin remains popular while he poisons his dissenters and intends to rule until his dying day.
In China the “re-education” of Muslim Uighars in detention camps is underway under the watchful eye of the United Nations.
In Belarus an autocrat ignores the hordes protesting and orchestrates a sham inauguration for his return to power.
From North Korea, the Philippines, Burma, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India to Brazil authoritarianism in all its forms is on open display.
And in America, while speaking to reporters in the people’s house, a president refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power with audacity and casts doubt on an election already in progress.
What makes elected leaders turn into dictators are the enablers they surround themselves with. Power begets power and once the drug intoxicates, no leader relinquishes unless forced to.
In most cases the enablers have a vested interest in propping up a leader who would enrich them in every way. The enablers are engaged in a dance of quid pro quo, and as long as that equation stands the dictator enjoys glory and all that comes with it.
Autocrats also enjoy support from the general public who become beholden to their image and what they stand for and are willing to offer. All the while blatantly ignoring all that is considered civil, honorable, honest, trustworthy, democratic, respectful and humane.
The devotion Hitler enjoyed for a sense of patriotism and pride he instilled, is akin to what populist leaders command today from their base. Once on that path, many are willing to ignore all evil and follow their leader all the way no matter the cost.
In America today, we stand at a precipice. We are certainly not Germany of the 1940s. A comparison of any modern leader to Hitler is jarring. But it is also true that Hitler came to power using democratic means and then suspended them to stay in power forever. Only destruction on a mammoth scale could unseat him. If that is not a cautionary tale for this generation and the ones to come, then nothing is as history has an uncanny way of repeating itself.
When a democratically leader begins to call into question the very process of democracy and refuses to conform to its most basic tenet, then one wonders how deep the rabbit hole is and whether it has a bottom.
Those in the media, the public and in the party who are enabling this abhorrent and reckless behavior, must ask themselves if they are truly American and if so what does that mean.
We have passed the point where we cannot ignore anything that is said at a podium just because one has one, as “crazy talk”. When a leader casts doubt on the very essence of democracy should that not be considered treason?
It is clear that the enablers have been emasculated. The senators, congressmen and others have lost all credibility when they stood by and watched words of treason being uttered. Only a handful responded with words of muted criticism. Those who were elected to defend democracy, have defiled and desecrated it by staying silent.
Now it is up to us as individuals to take a stand and become “conscientious objectors” to something that is very insidious in the making.
A Hidden Life ends with the following quote by George Elliot
“..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 lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The fate of American democracy now lies in the hands of “unhistoric acts” committed by us the people.