A Hidden Life
War can be considered a horrible beast; and in this day and age, no one is called up for military service and required to fight if they don’t wish to. This, of course, as we all know, was not the case during the Second World War for either the Allies or the Axis, and one fateful day a letter arrived at Franz Jagerstatter’s door. Thanks to director Terrence Malick, this is his story retold.
Living a peaceful married life on the farm with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and children in the mountain village of St Radegund, Franz (August Diehl) just wants to do well by his loved ones, his village and God, but as the dark clouds of war begin to shroud the hillside in darkness, they threaten also his simple lifestyle. Reluctant to serve Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime when called up to serve, Franz is arrested and imprisoned for being a conscientious objector, leaving his family intimidated and abused by their former friends. With Fani’s guidance, Franz reaches a crossroads at which he must make the ultimate decision. Forsake God’s teachings and sign an oath of allegiance, or die.
A Hidden Life requires stamina, clocking in at just under three hours. The film is long and unashamedly so – basking in lingering landscape shots of the Austrian mountains, meeting and holding the gaze of characters as they see their lives change before their eyes – and it’s a glorious spectacle to behold. Terrence Malick has chosen to fully embrace the “show, don’t tell” aspect of cinema in this feature, and as long as the audience remains focused and relaxed it certainly pays off, not least thanks to some marvellous performances that help make the movie more than your usual Second World War flick. The two lead stars, Diehl and Pachner, are perfect in their respective roles, encapsulating the true essence of what war can do to both individuals and families whilst also possessing a fierce on-screen chemistry. With such an inspirational historical figure at the heart of the picture, it’s immensely important to execute depictions with honour and respect, something that both actors achieve wonderfully.
Cinematographer Jorg Widmer and his team must have had an absolute field day working on this film, with the vast green landscapes of the Austrian mountains being a playground for all visual artists and lovers of cinema, and this element is certainly captured within the feature. There is also the presence of reel footage from the period featuring Adolph Hitler and decimated streets as thousands of soldier’s march through – a sharp reminder that the events unfurling on screen are indeed a moment in our history.
This pictorial element goes hand in hand with Malick’s carefully manifested screenplay, the explorational dialogue on morality working effectively alongside the visual shots to capture the harsh reality of war in acute detail. The plot, presented almost in a chapter format, follows the narratives of each main character, and is later carried by corresponding letters between Franz and Fani. As time passes, we begin to see all of the characters’ deterioration, the message remaining frank and to-the-point given the circumstances. After all, Franz was simply a humble farmer: not all heroes are emboldened by their predicament. On the contrary, most crumble beneath their superiors. This indeed is furthered demonstrated through a character named Waldlan (Franz Ragowski) who offers needed friendship to Franz in a short yet mesmerising performance. Surely the innocence of mankind should outweigh that of the strong-willed? At least that’s what this film and its characters wish to believe.
It is questions like this that Malick leaves the audience to pontificate on, but they only resonate so strongly because it is so evident that he has taken the time to write the screenplay in this way. A Hidden Life is a painful but beautiful movie. Honest to the point of its final act, baring the truth in its own enveloping, personal way.
A Hidden Life is released nationwide on 17th January 2020.
Watch the trailer for A Hidden Life here: