Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian farmer at the centre of ‘A Hidden Life’, finds himself in a lot of arguments. He isn’t an especially contentious man — on the contrary, his manner is generally amiable and serene. But he has done something that people in his village and beyond find provocative, which is to refuse combat service in the Second World War. He won’t take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler that is required of every Austrian soldier.
Since this is a film by Terrence Malick, the arguments don’t take the usual stagy, back-and-forth, expository form. The words, in English and unsubtitled German, slide across the action, overlapping scenes, fading in and out, trailing off into music or the sounds of nature. At issue is not only Franz’s future — he risks a death sentence if he persists in his refusal — but also the meaning of his action.
Most of the men (and they are mostly men) who try to dissuade him act in some degree of complicity with the Nazis. The mayor of St Radegund, the mountain hamlet where Franz lives, is a true believer, spouting xenophobic, master-race rhetoric in the town’s beer garden. The Roman Catholic clergy — Franz visits the local priest and a nearby bishop — counsel him to be quiet and compromise. Interrogators, bureaucrats and lawyers, including Franz’s defence attorney, try to make him see reason. His stubbornness won’t change anything, they say, and will only hurt his family. His actions are selfish and vain, his sacrifice pointless.
And Franz (August Diehl) is not the only one who suffers. He is imprisoned, first in a rural jail and then in Berlin’s Tegel prison. Some of the words we hear on the soundtrack are drawn from the letters that pass between him and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner). She stays behind to tend the farm with her sister and mother-in-law, and also to endure the hostility of the neighbours. The film is divided between Franz’s and Franziska’s points of view, and returns to images of them together with their three daughters against a backdrop of fields and mountains — pictures of everyday life and also of an earthly paradise that can withstand human evil.
The arresting visual beauty of ‘A Hidden Life’, which was shot by Joerg Widmer, is essential to its own argument, and to Franz’s ethical and spiritual rebuttal to the concerns of his persecutors and would-be allies. The topography of the valley is spectacular, but so are the churches and cathedrals. Even the cells and offices are infused with an aesthetic intensity at once sensual and picturesque. The hallmarks of Malick’s later style are here: the upward tilt of the camera to capture new vistas of sky and landscape; the brisk gliding along rivers and roads; the elegant cutting between the human and natural worlds; the reverence for music and the mistrust of speech. (The score is by James Newton Howard.)
But this is the most linear and, despite its nearly three-hour length, the most concentrated film he has made in a long time. More than ‘To the Wonder’ or ‘Knight of Cups’ or even the sublime ‘Tree of Life’, it tells a story with a beginning, a middle and end, and a moral. Malick’s lyricism sometimes washes out the psychological and historical details of the narrative. The political context is minimal, supplied by documentary footage of Nazi rallies at the beginning and Hitler at home in the middle. The performers don’t so much act as manifest conditions of being, like figures in a religious painting.
Which may be the best way to understand ‘A Hidden Life.’ The real Franz Jagerstatter was beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, who grew up in a part of Bavaria not far, geographically or culturally, from St Radegund. The film is an affirmation of its hero’s holiness, a chronicle of goodness and suffering that is both moving and mysterious.
The mystery — and the possible lesson for the present — dwells in the question of Franz’s motive. Why, of all the people in St Radegund, was he alone willing to defy fascism, to see through its appeal to the core of its immorality? His fellow burghers, including the mayor, are not depicted as monstrous. On the contrary, they are normal representatives of their time and place. Franz, whose father was killed in the First World War, who works the land with a steady hand, a loyal wife and three fair-haired children, seems like both an ideal target of Nazi propaganda and an embodiment of the Aryan ideal. How did he see through the ideology so completely?
The answer has to do with his goodness, a quality the movie sometimes reduces to — or expresses in terms of — his good looks. Diehl and Pachner are both charismatic, but their performances amount mainly to a series of radiant poses and anguished faces. Franz is not an activist; he isn’t connected to any organised resistance to Hitler, and he expresses his opposition in the most general moral terms. Nazism itself is depicted a bit abstractly, a matter of symbols and attitudes and stock images rather than specifically mobilised hatreds.
And this, I suppose, is my own argument with this earnest, gorgeous, at times frustrating film. Or perhaps a confession of my intellectual biases, which at least sometimes give priority to historical and political insight over matters of art and spirit. Franz Jagerstatter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better.
Don’t miss it!
‘A Hidden Life’ is out in the UAE on January 9.