Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is the story about Franz Jagerstatter who is an Austrian farmer and devout Catholic who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War II as he would later be beatified by the Catholic Church. A historical drama that is based on diaries and notes on Jagerstatter’s life that includes his time with wife Franziska, the film is a look into a man whose silence and questions about humanity makes him a target for those who are appalled by his actions as Jagerstatter is portrayed by August Diehl and his wife Franziska aka Fani is played by Valerie Pachner. Also starring Mathias Schoenaerts, Jurgen Prochnow, Maria Simon, and the final film appearances of Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist. A Hidden Life is an intoxicating and ravishing film from Terrence Malick.
Set largely in the small mountainside village of St. Radegund, Austria from 1939 to August of 1943, the film revolves around the life of Franz Jagerstatter as a farmer who tends his family land with wife Fani as well as their three young daughters, his mother, father-in-law, and sister-in-law Resie (Maria Simon) as World War II begins as he refuses to fight for Nazi Germany due to his principles and questions into why should anyone kill another person? It’s a film with a simple premise as it play into a man with strong beliefs as he copes with what he’s being asked as he would also be aware of the horrors of war just as his village is being swept up by the ideology of nationalism. The film’s screenplay by Terrence Malick is a largely straightforward affair as he returns to a traditional three-act narrative following a period of loosely-based films with no scripts. Notably as much of the script is based on corresponding letters, notes, and diaries from Jagerstatter and his wife where Malick maintains this narrative of a man holding on to his faith and his devotion to God during a tumultuous time that is World War II.
A common trait in Malick’s work is in the voice-over narrations as the film is told through both Franz and Fani with the first act being about their life together at St. Radegund as farmers raising three young daughters with Franz briefly leaving to do basic training until France’s surrender to Germany where he is sent home. Yet, his return home to his farm life is brief as the war rages on where able-bodied Austrians have to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich as it’s something Franz just couldn’t do. Even during his time in basic training, he saw images that haunt him as he goes to his local priest in Ferdinand Furthauer (Tobias Moretti) for guidance as the priest does give Franz a chance to speak with Bishop Joseph Fleisser (Michael Nyqvist) for advice but doesn’t get anything that will help him. The film’s second act play into Franz trying to decide on what to do as he and his family become ostracized over his beliefs as he would go to prison and await his fate with Fani dealing with the verbal abuse of many locals despite the help of a few.
Malick’s direction is definitely rapturous in not just in his overall presentation but also in maintaining something spiritual in the world he’s in. Shot on various locations in northern Italy near the Alps with some parts shot at the Studio Babelsberg at Postdam, Germany and the meeting with Bishop at Brixen, Austria. The locations for St. Radegund is a character in the film where Malick’s usage of wide and medium shots of its mountain ranges, skies, trees, grass, and wheat fields really play into this idyllic world that is simple and almost disconnected from the world of the cities as if they’re not distracted by its chaos. Shot on various styles ranging from these gliding tracking shots on Steadicams or in these hand-held camera shots with wide lenses that gets a lot of coverage of the rooms or locations these characters are in. Malick does play into a world where everyone knows everyone and treat each other with kindness and decency but then news about World War II and Austria being swept up by German nationalism of the Nazis where everything changes.
The constant imagery of nature does play into the tone of the story where the usage of dark rain clouds and dark colors do emphasize what is to come and how dark the world becomes with Franz and Fani both becoming ostracized for their beliefs. Malick does maintain that intimacy in the direction as it relates to the love between Franz and Fani through medium shots and close-ups as well as through their corresponding letters in the film’s second and third acts. Notably with Franz going to different prisons in Enns and later Berlin where he would meet his fate on August of 1943 as there are individuals, including a judge, (Bruno Ganz) at Franz’s trial who understands what he’s doing yet are aware of the consequences he is facing. Malick also would infuse stock footage that include rare home movies from Adolf Hitler and images of trains as it play into some of the narration about the dilemma that Franz is dealing as well as some of the abuse that Fani would go through.
Malick also showcase some of these fanatical moments of nationalism that definitely echo a lot of what had been happening in the U.S. in the late 2010s as it is clear that there is some political subtext that Malick has brought yet he chooses to state his views in a subtle and silent manner. Even with Franz being someone who is just asking simple questions that local leaders to those up in the higher echelons of the government at the time refuse to answer. Yet, Malick does something remarkable towards the end of the film that does have a near-three hour running time for a story that is simple as it says a lot about those who aren’t willing to ostracize nor take sides of anything by just being decent. Even as something as simple as faith being the one thing that allows a person to be grounded and ask these questions during a dark time of inhumane events happening as this one man stands up for his beliefs as well as be human in these horrific times. Overall, Malick crafts a touching and evocative film about an Austrian farmer who refuses to pledge his allegiance to Nazi Germany during World War II through an act of silent defiance.
Cinematographer Jorg Widmer does phenomenal work with the film’s cinematography with its emphasis on natural lighting as it helps capture the lush colors of green trees and forests as well as many of the natural surroundings with some low-key artificial lighting for some of the interiors as it is a highlight of the film. Editors Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, and Sebastien Jones do brilliant work with the editing with its stylish usage of jump-cuts to play into some of the emotional elements of the film as well as some rhythmic cuts to play into the conversations. Production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel, with set decorator Yesim Zolan plus art directors Steve Summersgill and Bryce Tibbey, does brilliant work with the look of the farm as well as some of interiors of the town as well as the prison interiors. Costume designer Lisy Christl does fantastic work with the costumes from the blue dress that Fani wears when she meets Franz for the first time as well as a lot of casual look of the people at St. Radegund and the Nazi uniforms of the times.
Hair/makeup designer Waldemar Pokromski does terrific work with the look of the characters in the hairstyle of the times as well as the facial hair in some of the male characters in the film. Visual effects supervisor Antoine Durr does nice work with the visual effects as it is largely bits of set dressing in some of the locations. Sound editor Brad Engleking does excellent work with the sound in not just capturing a lot of the natural elements of the sound such as the sharpening of the scythe as well as the locations and in the voice-over narrations. The film’s music by James Newton Howard is marvelous for its somber yet broad orchestral music score that adds to the drama while music supervisor Lauren Mikus helps provide a soundtrack that feature several classical music pieces Georg Fredric Handel, Avro Part, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Antonin Dvorak.
The casting by Anja Dihrberg is superb as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from trio of Ida Mutschlechner, Maria Weger, and Aennie Lade as Franz and Fani’s daughters, Amber Shave and Barabara Stampfl as younger versions of the two elder daughters, Karl Markovics as the mayor of St. Radegund, Johan Leysen as a church painter, Johannes Kirsch as a miller who is one of the few that treats Fani with kindness despite the behavior of the community, Franz Rogowski as a crazed local who lives in the woods, Mark Waschke as a kind blacksmith, Maria Stadler as an old widow that Fani helps out who later helps her in return, Alexander Fehling as Franz’s trial lawyer, Sophie Rois as Fani's aunt, Jurgen Prochnow as a military officer, Maria Simon as Fani’s sister Resie, and Karin Neuhauser as Franz’s mother who would resent Fani over her Franz’s decisions only to see the cruelty of her townspeople. Ulrich Matthes and Tobias Moretti are excellent in their respective roles as Fani’s father and the local priest Father Furthauer who are both supportive of Franz and Fani. Matthias Schoenaerts is fantastic in his small role as an Austrian official who tries to help Franz and to not get him in trouble while Michael Nyqvist in one of his final film roles is brilliant as the Bishop Fleisser who talks with Franz though he doesn’t give any answers possibly to not upset the Nazi regime.
Bruno Ganz is amazing as the trial judge who takes the time to understand what Franz is doing as he is also aware that the man has chosen his fate as it’s a somber performance from Ganz in one of his final film appearances. Finally, there’s the duo of August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in phenomenal performances in their respective roles as Franz and Franziska “Fani” Jagerstatter with the former as the farmer who refuses to fight for Nazi Germany based on principle as he also asks questions as he holds on to his faith as Diehl just displays a sense of humility and wonderment of a man standing up for his beliefs. Pachner as the latter has this air of grace in her performance as a farmer’s wife trying to raise her daughters and do all the farming duties as she dealt with the struggle of doing it by herself or with her sister as it’s just a radiant performance as she and Diehl just have this touching chemistry as they’re a major highlight of the film.
A Hidden Life is an outstanding film from Terrence Malick that features great performances from August Diehl and Valerie Pachner. Along with its ensemble cast, radiant cinematography, majestic music soundtrack, themes of faith and beliefs against the ideas of evil, and gorgeous locations. The film is definitely a drama that showcases faith in a positive way as it also play into a kind of act of humanity against something as inhumane as war and fanatical nationalism. In the end, A Hidden Life is a magnificent film from Terrence Malick.
Terrence Malick Films: Badlands - Days of Heaven - The Thin Red Line - The New World - The Tree of Life - To the Wonder - Knight of Cups - Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience - (Voyage of Time: Life's Journey) – Song to Song - (The Way of the Wind)
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