The Austrian Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector, refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II.
It would be fair to say Terrence Malick’s output over the past decade has been patchy at best and as I sat through ‘Song to Song’ a couple of years ago I did question why I continued to go and see his work. ‘The Tree of Life’ was his last critically acclaimed film and I didn’t connect with it at the time, but my love for ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘Badlands’ kept me hoping he could produce something approaching their undoubted quality. This brings me on to ‘A Hidden Life’, his latest film and a relative return to form, although a film still plagued by the worst aspects of his latter day career. Set during the Second World War, it tells the story of an Austrian conscientious objector called Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis or swear allegiance to Hitler. In many respects it’s a typical Malick film but the genuine narrative focuses him and this is a much more worthwhile watch than much of his recent output.
Jägerstätter is a farmer in a small country village in Austria, where he lives a happy life amidst the mountains with his wife and three daughters. When war breaks out and the village holds a vote to approve the annexation of Austria into Germany, Jägerstätter starts to question the morality of the war and the behaviour of his fellow citizens, drawing him to the attention of the authorities. His refusal to swear allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich alienates him from his neighbours and leads to his arrest and imprisonment in Berlin as the war continues to rage on. It’s a vital story about the importance of quiet moments of heroism that may go unnoticed, but ‘A Hidden Life’ isn’t as strong a treatment of Jägerstätter’s story as I’d hoped it would be. Malick is an indulgent director and whilst there are moments of great beauty, I felt the film was too long and stretching the narrative only served to minimize the power of the story he is trying to tell.
The strongest moments of the film are when it focuses on the dilemma that Jägerstätter faces, where he’s pushed into an impossible choice between his personal faith and beliefs and the ‘easy’ choice that would let him return back to his family. It posits that quiet moments of heroism that go unnoticed are often the most important, and through August Diehl’s performance we can fully empathise and understand why he’s put himself in this position. It’s also a love story and the narration covering letters between Jägerstätter and his wife (Valerie Pachner) really bring out the best in Malick’s style, with the striking beauty of the Austrian valley setting leading to some gorgeous cinematography and camera shots.
‘A Hidden Life’ is Malick’s best film in years, drawing out the moral dilemma at the heart of a man torn between standing up for his beliefs and the benefits of an easier life. It’s also littered with the same issues that have plagued his recent work, with an excessive running time and an obsession with visual flourishes over narrative. Regardless, Jägerstätter’s story is one that deserves to be known and ‘A Hidden Life’ is a candid depiction of his story.
Directed By: Terrence Malick
Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Karin Neuhauser, Michael Nyqvist, Jurgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, Martin Wuttke, Alexander Fehling, Maria Simon, Franz Rogowski, Tobias Moretti, Ulrich Matthes, Max Mauff, Johan Leysen, Sophie Rois, Karl Markovics, Alexander Radszun, Joel Basman, Waldemar Kobus and Johannes Krisch