Synopsis: Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II
Stars: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz, Alexander Fehling
Director: Terrence Malick
Running Length: 173 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: For a while there, it seemed like director Terrence Malick was going to be gone forever. After directing the well-liked Badlands in 1973 and oft-revered Days of Heaven in 1978, he went into a self-imposed exile for twenty years before returning with The Thin Red Line. Meticulous with his details and often giving more weight to the visuals of his work than the overall narrative, Malick’s films are instantly recognizable and can sometimes be heavy handed explorations of introspection, nature, the universe, etc. Reaching a kind of zenith with the polarizing The Tree of Life, his recent films have been less structured and more free-form experiments…and they haven’t achieved the same kind of critical or box office success as his previous efforts.
Malick has returned to his narrative storytelling in A Hidden Life and it shows why, with only a handful of films to his credit over the past forty years, he’s still one of the greatest directors we have. Jettisoning the loosey-goosey triviality of his last films, this represents a more determined focus on finding strong characters and putting them up against seemingly impossible obstacles to overcome. The Malick we know is on display in the breathtaking cinematography and attention to small interpersonal moments but there are also new discoveries aplenty showing the filmmaker embracing this difficult tale of hardship and sacrifice as more than just a sorrowful chapter in history.
It’s early in 1939 and nestled in the Austrian mountainside is St. Radegund, a small hamlet that has provided shelter and quietly solid living far from the pains of the distant developing cities for generations. The supportive community shares a special bond of respect and it’s where Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, Allied) has always called home. Married to his sweetheart Fani (Valerie Pachner, The Ground Beneath My Feet) they work their land and have carved out a good life for themselves, which is all they have ever wanted or asked for. The outside world has other plans for them, though, and when war comes to Germany, Franz performs his civic duty and signs up for service. While Franz is in basic training, Fani keeps the farm going with the assistance of her neighbors and relatives.
During that brief moment in time when it seemed the war was coming to an end, Franz returns to his wife and three young daughters but their time together in their bit of heaven is all too brief. He’s called back to his responsibilities in the army but now is asked to swear an allegiance to Hitler, an oath he cannot give. Franz can see where his country is heading and objects to the path he’s being asked to tread, by rejecting this statement he is in effect rejecting Germany. Before returning he asks the advice of Bishop Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist, John Wick) only to find the religious figure has already made questionable allowances for his own survival. Deciding to lead with his heart, Franz refuses to comply with the promise and is swiftly jailed for being a conscientious objector, a crime punishable by death.
As Franz awaits trial, Fani tries push through new hardships at home but is increasingly ostracized by the villagers who have heard about her husband. Friendships turn cold, professional relationships sour, loved ones become bitter enemies; yet the love between Fani and Franz endures, even during the darkest times. Numerous people meet with Franz during his time in jail in order to sway him to change his mind. His lawyer (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Mustang), growing impatient, wants nothing more than to get him to simply sign a statement and free himself of a certain fate. A Nazi judge, portrayed with almost a Pontius Pilate edge by the late Bruno Ganz (who, like Nyqvist, passed away before this movie was released), gives Franz an opportunity to make him understand his reasoning…but would it really make a difference?
There’s a haunting feeling hanging over A Hidden Life from the start. Even though Malick and cinematographer Jörg Widmer (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) fill the screen wall to wall with some of the most gorgeous images you’ll see all year, there’s a semblance of sadness to it all. The first hour before the war truly intervenes in the happy life of Franz and Fani, the camera lingers over the daily mundane work and bold promise of a rich harvest. Then, when Franz is called away and life takes a turn the views stay on an epic scale, but you feel the empty space far more than you did before. The final hour is when Malick slips a bit with a few scenes/characters that feel extraneous and slightly too inward facing but it’s shored up sharply in anticipation of its poignant finale. Without spoiling anything, there’s a solemnity to the final act that’s handled with respect but a certain frankness of reality that Malick has never shied away from.
What Malick winds up with is one of the most moving and stunningly beautiful movies I’ve seen. Along with a gossamer score from James Newton Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), this is the kind of film you’re so grateful to get the chance to see on a big screen in all its glory. I can’t even imagine seeing this for the first time on a small screen because the way it’s constructed it’s essentially meant to be experienced on this grand, almost overwhelming scale. It helps that Diehl and especially Pachner are excellent in their roles because with all this scenic beauty it would be easy to forget there is a story about real life humans happening in front of it all. Diehl’s soft-spoken sensitive soul could have been a bit milquetoast, but he makes it work by demonstrating a balance between internal struggle with dedicated resolve. I loved Pachner’s performance, probably more than some of the Best Actress nominees that have been gaining a lot of attention these past few weeks. Most of her dialogue is in voiceover so it’s her face that we rely on to inform where her emotions are taking her. When she’s shunned by the town and ignored by those she trusted, her dignity in soldiering on is as strong an act as anything her husband is going through.
Don’t let the running length scare you. I am the king of seat squirming and watch checking and I was so enraptured by this that the first time I glanced at my watch was around two and a half hours in. Though it debuted strongly in Cannes earlier in 2019, A Hidden Life is arriving in theaters with little fanfare and that’s a real pity. I know it’s a crowded season with a host of well-reviewed and, let’s face it, happier and shorter films to catch but to miss this one (and especially to miss it in a theater) would be a big mistake for any fan of movies, Malick, or plain old good storytelling.