A Hidden Life-2019
Starring-August Diehl, Valerie Pachner
Scott’s Review #1,063
Reviewed September 22, 2020
Terrence Malick returns to the big screen with A Hidden Life (2019), a lavish, sprawling beauty with a more structured plot than many of his other films. His recent offering, The Tree Of Life (2011), though marvelous, lost some viewers with its spirituality and lack of pacing. With A Hidden Life, the director offers more substantial writing and an easier to follow story. It seems we can never get enough of World War II Nazi stories and conflict in cinema, as the topic remains relevant and powerful.
This one stands out to me in a powerful way because it is based on a real-life figure, and although set in 1940’s Germany and Austria, shrieks of relevance in current United States history as Malick offers clear parallels to the Donald Trump era. Frightening stuff. He weaves the past with the present, so Trump and Hitler’s personalities are comparisons and the supporters of each portrayed as similar. Again, frightening stuff.
Peaceful peasant farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), lives a quiet life with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), in rural Austria. Over the years they welcome three daughters and exist in the idyllic village, popular and well-liked by the townspeople. Their beautiful life soon turns ugly when the German army recruits Franz for basic training. Events escalate when he refuses to take a loyalty oath to Hitler, wanting nothing to do with a war he does not support nor with those who align themselves with the dictator. This leads to much conflict for Franz and his family as they face the wrath of once kindly neighbors, and the vicious Nazis.
The artistic details are gorgeous as frequent scenes of lush landscape erupt in a frenzy. The statuesque mountains in the background, a shot of a running stream, the characters digging, planting, and growing produce, all are exquisite, adding a grandness and a spirituality. Advisable is to watch the film on the big screen, though I did not and still marvel at these sequences.
Despite the camerawork, A Hidden Life is not an easy watch, but it is an important one. The film is rich with meaning, texture, and substance. You get the feeling you are watching something of worth and that really means something. The film is not a work of fiction and the realism is quite powerful. To imagine a man like Franz sticking to his values and beliefs in the face of death and peril in real-life is astonishing and sobering. Malick does not do glossy or downplay the ordeals that Franz endures in the hideous German prisons. Treated barely better than Jews were in concentration camps, he was nonetheless mocked, humiliated, and eventually executed.
When Franz is repeatedly advised by a local priest and others to merely take the oath and not mean a word of it, Franz cannot do it. I was left wondering how many other German and Austrian people pretended to support Hitler to save off death, but really did not. I couldn’t find any studies.
The comparisons to the horrific conditions in the United States present day with a wannabee dictator in the White House is sobering. Thankfully, the United States is still the land of the brave and the free and certainly the outspoken. But we have a voice, and Franz did not nor do the Austrian people who he presumably represents. He did his best and refused to succumb to the pressures, but the question can be asked if it was worth it.
Oh, how I wish A Hidden Life had a different title, though. Not exactly one that rolls off the tongue it took me days to remember what the title was. I kept confusing it with A Better Life (2011), a completely different type of film with a similar name. Something a bit more dynamic would have been preferred though I totally get why the word “life” was included. It’s such a profound word. The correlation of titles with The Tree of Life (2011) does make sense.
Malick does it again, offering another left-of-center production that goes against the grain compared to most modern cinema. World War II films are a dime a dozen, but this film stands out for its beauty and characterization. One most likely needs to get Terrence Malick and his films to truly understand and appreciate what the man is going for here and props for adding more concise story to draw viewers. A Hidden Life (2019) is grand and fraught with meaning adding a relevance to the current United States political state.
Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Terrence Malick