In the novel “Middlemarch,” George Eliot praises those of us who do good without getting our fifteen minutes of fame: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Among directors who take this expression to heart and project to their audience the lives of such people, you can scarcely find one more qualified than Terrence Malick. The master of meditative movies is back with his best offering in eight years, having wowed his (admittedly) relative small audience with “The Tree of Life,” the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956 wherein an adolescent boy is conflicted by his mother and father’s opposing ideas of upbringing.
With “A Hidden Life,” Malick takes us back to the 1940s, focusing his lenses on a family of six on a farm in St Radegun, Austria (filmed on location), a vista of compelling beauty framed by the Alps, complete with trees that rustle in the wind and brooks that flow without impedance. In a story based on real events, Franz Jägestätter (August Diehl) lives with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter, his mother-in-law, and his three young daughters. Franziska appears to have influenced him to the wonders of religion, a loving woman who cannot embrace her husband enough, who joins in the fun of mock chases with the little girls. He will later prove that he did not remain a hidden life, for his momentous decision to refuse to swear loyalty to Hitler who had annexed Austria threatens to cost him his life. A conscientious objector who nonetheless reports to an induction center where he refuses to raise his arm in a salute to Hitler, he suffers the hostility of all members of his farming community outside of his family. He would be punched spit upon, lectured by the town mayor, and altogether ostracized by these simply Austrian fellows who ecstatically welcomes the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.
Much of the three hour presentation is bound to tax the patience of some in the audience who might not be aware of the types of movies that Malick regularly makes. In this case, though the people in the story are all German speaking, ninety percent of the dialogue is in English, and not so much the dialogue of the people but instead that of their narrated thoughts. During the first segment of the movie, some in the audience will be wondering: When will something happen? Instead we see the daily, monotonous, grinding work of the people, threshing without the aid of modern equipment, cutting the wheat with scythes and harvesting with the aid of a donkey and a cow. The writer-director gives us a splendid picture of what farming was like some eighty years ago, later to contrast that with the brutality of the Nazis given almost complete authority over their Austrian prisoners.
You can’t say that when the Germans heard of this “traitor” who refuses to fight for the fatherland, they just hoisted him up on the gallows. Several military officers did their best to get him to sign a loyalty oath and take his chances on fighting. There was even some expectation that he would be exempted as were some farmers. Even in the end, when condemned to death, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz), one of the elderly judges on the military court, counseled that his protest would not mean a thing; that it would not stop the war or hinder the war effort in the slightest. Franz would probably agree. Though he probably lacked much education, his ethical choice was influenced not by consequentialism (make your ethical choice by the results that would ensue), but more by deontology (do the right thing even if by consequence it did not matter).
Since the church declared him a martyr and later beatified him, and since Malick made a film about him, the German judge was obviously wrong. It’s not clear from “A Hidden Life” what was in Franz’s background that made him the only farmer to refuse to serve the Führer, but by the conclusion of the three hours, we have a solid picture of the daily, natural life of small-town farmers contrasted with the brutality of the war effort. Diehl and Pachner anchor the film in their stirring roles, the latter showing how far a wife would go to stop her man from being a martyr, while Diehl demonstrates the absolute determination to resist.
This is a film that Malick fans will find irresistible.
180 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
A HIDDEN LIFE
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno, Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhauser, Ulrich Matthes
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/9/19
Opens: December 13, 2019
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+