A Hidden Life
Written and Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Mattihias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow
Each story has a human connection, something that reminds us that we are alright, that the world is alright even if everything around us crumbles to dust. That’s as good a reason for Captain America or Superman to be in our history.
But, what if the right thing to do isn’t a result of being in the right place at the right time, but because it is truly the right thing to do? What is selfless in the face of a mad man? What if the perception is that you’re a mad man for sticking up for the most basic of human moral values?
Terrence Malick sets out to answer these questions in his latest film, “A Hidden Life,” set in the mountainous St. Radegund, Austria. The time is 1939 and Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a peasant farmer is called up to basic training in Hilter’s army taking him away from his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and three daughters.
Early in the film, Malick establishes Franz and Franziska as a pillar of their small community, tending to their field, their endless love forming a cup from which each drinks equally. Their three children roam happily about the mountainous countryside. Their life is simple, as are the people they encounter. Malick, through his script shows us life in an isolated community.
That isolation is important because World War Ii eventually breaks out. Interestingly, it does not directly affect or alter the landscape of the mountainous hills. It instead alters the people who inhabit the small community as Franz is called up for basic training.
For months, he is separated from his wife and kids, but their love for one another is continually carried out through letters read in their voices. From Franz’s perspective, the idea of war is unfathomable. He states in a letter to his wife that he is bored.
When France surrenders, Franz is released from his training. Yet the thought of being recalled hangs over the family when he returns home. He is hounded for tributes to the war party’s veteran’s fund and constantly faces threats from those who were kinder to him before Franz decides to take action. Diehl emotes far more than any physical action he does in the role.
It’s interesting as I recall the film that it opens with Franz manually shearing his crop in a sweeping motion, as if cutting the ties to the land that had provided for him, knowing that the crop will regrow in the future. Valerie Pachner is sublime as the other half of a relationship so very deep that you can feel its electricity through the theater screen.
When Franz is called to serve as the war expands, he refuses, becoming a Conscientious Objector. Immediately taken into custody, Franz is repeatedly asked to sign the Allegiance to Hitler, which he refuses. The camera work from Jörg Widmer while he is in prison changes its scope as the feeling of isolation starts to creep in to Franz’s world, the constant fear and questioning of what affect his actions will have on the rest of the world.
Franziska is left to tend to the farm and eventually runs out of help. There’s a moment where they are taken advantage of and she is powerless. It is a powerful moment in which she decides to see her husband and while everyone else implores him not to throw his life away, there is that cup of love that they have created; a hidden life away from all the other obstacles put in their way.
I’m reminded of a quote as I think about the beginning of Malick’s second wind career:
Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.
~ Andrei Tarkovski, Director
He hasn’t run away from conveying his ideas as much as allowing his audience to find themselves. In “A Hidden Life,” his characters have already found themselves, but it is up to us to find the life they chose to lead. The film runs a little over three hours and Malick makes use of every second supported by James Newton Howard’s lush score and the haunting images that represent Franz’s decision to hold a moral high ground, taking solace in “A Hidden Life.”