Terrence Malick’s latest film is a deep, meditative study on conscience and consequences. Based on the true story of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, a farmer who refused to swear loyalty to Hitler during WWII and was jailed for his dissidence, A Hidden Life is a visual feast conveying a heartbreaking tale.
The film is a slow manifestation of Malick’s trademark style – voiceovers from characters, a focus on silence and a distinguished earthy realism. Running for almost three hours, A HIdden Life juxtaposes personal experience with universal impact. The melodic pacing of the film is bewitching and it’s easy to lose a sense of time while in the depths of the story.
Set in the Austrian Alps, Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) dedicate their lives to their farm and their daughters. When Germany declares war on France, Franz is called up to fight. Once France is defeated, Franz returns home. When he is called up a second time, he is conflicted. He seeks advice from the church and ultimately refuses to declare loyalty to Hitler. He questions why no one else in their small alpine town can see that their leaders are evil.
Watching both Franz and Fani struggle to comprehend Franz’s decision will make your throat swell. Children from the town throw mud at their daughters for their father’s action, or lack of action as they see it. Fani and her sister are ostracized from the town while Franz stares down his uncertain future in prison.
Much of the context of the film is provided through past-tense narration based on the letters sent between the couple, which is juxtaposed against the visuals of the story that are conveyed in the present tense, and the effect is haunting. August Diehl’s raw portrayal of the spiritual farmer is not one that will be easily forgotten. At times you’ll laud him for his devoutness, for his utter refusal to abandon his morals despite the consequences, but you’ll just as likely be shaking your fist at the screen seconds later, cursing him for not bending his values for the sake of his young family. This dual admiration and despair create a tension which barely wavers throughout the film.
Along with the mesmerizing visuals, Malick’s decision to have direct dialogue in English but any use of German (which is often used to shout insults and accusations at the farming family) to be unsubtitled is extremely powerful. Despite not understanding the exact words, the meaning is unmistakable.
Reminiscent of his other period pieces, A Hidden Life embodies Malick’s true style and offers a perspective on war often undervalued in cinema.
Artificial lights only used on rare occasions during shooting. For all the other sets, including the prison cells, the team simply used the right time of the day to shoot it until they lost the light.