In the alpine village of Radegund, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, "Allied") is blessed with a wife he's crazy about and three beautiful little daughters. Their faith and love of their naturally splendid surroundings ensures daily happiness even as they perform laborious chores. But Hitler's rise casts a pall, Franz turning first to his village priest (Tobias Moretti), then Bishop Joseph Fliessen (Michael Nyqvist, "John Wick") for guidance when he is called to serve a government he considers evil. Backed by the unwavering devotion of Fani (Valerie Pachner), Franz refuses to fight for Hitler, earning the ire of his village and imprisonment with the heroic resistance of "A Hidden Life."
After a trio of films with increasingly diminishing returns, writer/director Terrence Malick makes a strong return to form with a film so long in the making two of its stars (Nyqvist and Bruno Ganz) have passed away in the interim. Although clearly a Malick work with its arcing tracking shots, glorification of the natural world and underlying spirituality, “A Hidden Life” is one of his most narratively straightforward works. Working with the actual letters between the couple after Franz was imprisoned, Malick keeps their accented English narration in the forefront, his German and Austrian cast speaking German in the background. It is an unusual approach that serves his film well.
The film begins establishing the idyll that is St. Radegund, Fani telling us about a ‘simpler time,’ before cutting to the forbidding Enns Military Base in 1940 where Franz spends many months away from home in basic training while Fani tends the farm with her sister Resie (Maria Simon, “Good Bye Lenin!”). Once France surrenders, he returns home, the village concluding that the war must be about to end. Warning signs begin with Radegund’s Mayor (Karl Markovics)
ranting about other races and immigrants, villagers beginning to adopt the ‘Heil, Hitler!’ salute as greeting. Franz believes the village priest fears he is a spy when he asks for guidance, the Bishop advising he has a duty to his Fatherland.
Malick fills in some details as mere whispers, Franz noting his horror at witnessing the execution of mental patients almost as an aside, or actually witnessing a man drinking from a stream run into the woods at his approach. Signs of Catholicism are everywhere in the Jägerstätter farm and the village, but the Jägerstätter’s neighbors begin to shun them, their children pelted with stones.
Franz’s own mother and Fani’s sister do not support the couple’s stance. Then Franz is called back up into the Army, jailed when he refuses to take an oath of allegiance, first at Enns, then Berlin where he is sentenced to be executed.
Diehl and Pachner are extraordinarily lovely together, their marriage projecting a kind of sensual purity. Diehl radiates Franz’s goodness and resolve while Pachner struggles to find the strength to face losing everything in service to doing the right thing that her husband is committed to. As he endures humiliation from Nazi soldiers, she plows the land and climbs down a well gone dry, three little girls always demanding her attention. If Franz finds a true friend in Waldlan ("Transit's" Franz Rogowski), another Berlin prisoner, Fani is ostracized by all by the town’s miller (Johannes Krisch, "A Cure for Wellness") and the farm animals she lovingly cares for. The film’s bigger names - Matthias Schoenaerts, Jürgen Prochnow and Ganz – all appear in brief roles, Ganz making the biggest impression as Judge Lueben, clearly saddened by the trial he presides over. Pachner, in particular, should see global demand for her talents rise, so indelible is the sexy, stalwart Fani.
The film could easily have had 30 or so minutes excised from its 173 minute running time, Malick overindulging in his midsection’s letter which finds husband and wife each avoiding sharing any of their hardships, instead accentuating the joys of life and each other. Malick may have had his film in production for many years, but the timing of his release seems almost preordained, faith in love, goodness and Mother Nature keeping the human spirit soaring during times of hatred and darkness.
Robin gives "A Hidden Life" an A-.
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