Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cinematographer: Jörg Widmer
Producer: Elisabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio, Grant Hill, and Josh Jeter
by Jon Cvack
Prior to The Tree of Life (2011), and with the exception of the 1980s (which would have been interesting), Terrence Malick made about one film per decade. From 1973 through 2011 he made five films. From 2011 to today he’s made another five. Notoriously avoidant of the press and Awards show, you can’t help wondering what made the man suddenly immerse himself into telling one story after another. His study of philosophy is felt in every scene and it doesn’t seem too far a reach that at the age of 76 he’s growing increasingly aware of his own mortality. Perhaps distraction. Perhaps the need to tell his remaining stories before it’s too late.
To the Wonder (2012) was his first film that felt as though it had failed to meet the grandeur of his prior work. It was a very good movie, but something was missing. It felt small, experimental, even. Aside from the few scenes with Javier Bardem in church, few images have remained with me the way his other stories have. Knight of Cups (2015) followed and suddenly there was a shift; in which Malick’s style became too apparent and ill-fitted; feeling as though an imitation like so many others have done. Waves (2019), most recently.
It’s a topic that Tarantino has mentioned in declaring he’ll only make ten films; not wanting to fade out the way his favorite directors have and leave a tainted filmography. Having won a Golden Globe for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019) I’m left wondering if he would do it. This was the first year that I thought my generation’s most revered filmmakers lost some of the magic the way Tarantino described. The Irishman, Tarantino’s film, and A Hidden Life were all very good films, but didn’t provide that Earth-shattering experience the directors previously created. Put differently, these movies are better than the vast majority of cinema, but in terms of individual filmographies, these are on the lower half.
A Hidden Life is the true story of rural farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) who works in the Austrian mountain village of St. Radegund as the Nazi’s expand across Europe. A title card tells us that Germany demanded Austrian men to fight for them and swear an oath to Hitler. He’s joined by his wife Franzika (Valerie Pachner) and three daughters. Franziska and Franz are that endearing duo, sharing the work equally while always making time to show affection and love.
When Franz quits the service and returns to the farm, ostracized from most of the town; made all the more problematic in that he works with people everyday, depending on them for trade and assistance. Franziska supports him the best she could even though it means working all the harder to make up for it.
Soon Franz receives a draft notice, ordering him back into the military. He heads back but again refuses to take an oath to Hitler which then lands him in jail. Franziska manages the farm with the help of her sister Rosalia (Karin Neuhauser). She receives letters on occasion, unsure whether she’ll ever see Franz again, all while dealing with the town’s animus.
According to IMDb trivia, the film took over three years to edit; making me wonder if Donald Trump was even a real possibility at the time of Malick writing or even discovering the story. The parallels are striking in how the town increasingly commits itself to Hitler, shunning anyone who fails to tow the party line. One question both sides of the aisle can agree on is how the Nazis were able to convince so many people of their cause? We forget that there was idealism and hope; a return to the great Prussian Empire, allowing them to ignore the pains and death caused to others in order to achieve that goal.
The one issue I had with the film was in wondering how Franz knew enough about the Nazis to refuse an oath to Hitler. We never get a sense of information being exchanged. Only discussed. Given that it takes place in an idyllic rural Austrian mountain village how could any information be trusted? Were there newspapers or an underground press? I assume it was when Frazn was watching the news footage and heard the Nazis cheering on the destruction. Turns out the real Franz was a pacifist, and thus like Desmond Doss from Hacksaw Ridge (2016), it wasn’t even about politics. Something that feels like Terrence Malick deliberately left out. I’m left wondering how interesting it would have been to hear the Nazis debate Franz’s religious objection.
As Franz rots in prison, Malick keeps teasing us with sounds of planes and soldiers coming in; making us think he might last through the Allied invasion. The time stamp is enough to suggest otherwise, and when Franz is sentenced to death in August 1943 we know there are few chances for survival. A lawyer tries to convince him to sign the oath, going so far as to return to St. Radegund to find Franziska and bring her back. She does and with few words, she knows his mind is made up.
I’m left wondering if Malick saw The Death of Stalin (2017) as he follows Franz up to his execution. In the film’s most brutal scene we watch as he’s positioned fourth in an abandoned factory yard, waiting his turn to get into the dark building and what awaits him; soon discovering a guillotine. It’s here where Malick mastery shines as he somehow places us into the mind of Franz and the other soldiers. Some cry, others panic, and Franz looks around, up at the beautiful scattered cloud sky. What does one think of in those final moments, knowing that each thought and image could be your last? We at least get a taste of how time and mind functions in such a situation.
The weekend I saw this I watched Schindler’s List (1993), more confident than ever in declaring it as one of the greatest pieces of cinema - and works of art - ever created. I was left thinking of The Thin Red Line (1998), which serves as one of the greatest war films ever created. At three hours long, A Hidden Life was simply too much for such an intimate story. There were only so many images of Franziska and her sister working the fields, the children running around, and Franz sitting in his prison cell or wandering around the yard. The story itself is simple enough to have been a phenomenal two hour film. Instead, it feels unable to let go, combined with losing Lubezki, it couldn’t achieve the magnificence to justify its running time. Three hour films about the Nazis demand action; if not in physical action then in dramatic.
BELOW: One of the best scenes of the year
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