Malick shines a caring, admiring light on ‘A Hidden Life’

“A Hidden Life” – “It seemed no trouble could reach our valley. We lived above the clouds.” – Franziska (Fani) Jagerstatter (Valerie Pachner)

Franz and Fani Jagerstatter (August Diehl and Pachner) have a beautiful life. This happily married couple own a farm, have three young daughters and much love is felt within their home and also with their supportive neighbors in the tiny village of St. Radegund, tucked away in an Austrian valley.

They live openly in St. Radegund, but this community is generally unseen to the rest of the world.

The year is 1940, and World War II has been raging for a year. Franz is called up by the Austrian military for basic training at Enns Military Base, but he thankfully returns home after some time. Still, the war is escalating. It’s not winding down. He could be called back for duty, and his negative feelings about the war and Adolf Hitler will no longer be private but common knowledge.

Writer/director Terrence Malick knew and embraced Franz’s story, and he offers his organic filmmaking perspective and shines a caring, admiring light on this family’s hidden life.

Certainly, World War II films can carry familiar threads, but Malick’s picture does not feature military clashes in France or horrific sights in concentration camps. His film squarely lands on Franz’s silent protest. This man does not pledge allegiance to Hitler, like every Austrian solider is supposed to do, but severe consequences will await those who refuse.

By saying, “No,” Franz could lose everything.

Everything is a simple word to say, but to actually quantify this intangible sum seems like an impossible task. Malick, however, wholly captures Franz’s everything during the film’s first 10 minutes by pouring the Jagerstatters’ foundation on-screen with wondrous, affectionate pools of flourishing greens, distant jagged and rounded peaks, and their family’s earnest enthusiasm for balance with nature and each other in a personal Eden. Malick and cinematographer Jorg Widmer fit perfectly here, and since Franz and Fani are farmers, we see the couple kneeling in grass with their hands gently pulling clumps of rich earth or swinging their scythes with an incalculable, joyous rhythm from some otherworldly, existential math.

We learn about Franz and Fani’s first meeting and enjoy bursts of their smiling children, and much more. These images dance in concert with James Newton Howard’s score of sweet, soaring strings that rise into achingly beautiful, dreamy concoctions of operatic majesty that can truly reduce grown men to tears.

This is Franz’s everything.

These are the riches that he could lose by saying, “No,” to Hitler.

Diehl explains at a 2019 Cannes press conference, that Franz isn’t trying to be hero.

“I don’t think it’s a movie about heroic things. A hero is something that we say afterwards about a person who did certain things, but this is a movie about a private and silent choice. Something invisible,” Diehl said.

He later adds, “(It’s about) somebody in the room that says, ‘No,’ out of a simple feeling, not with any intellectual explanation, not doing actually anything. Just saying ‘No,’ because something is wrong.”

Hence, Franz stands with his convictions against intimidating political and institutional machines, but the pull between standing up for his beliefs and returning to his beautiful life in St. Radegund is excruciating. He isn’t the only one suffering, as Fani struggles at home, and Malick not only includes earthy frames of the girls, Fani and her sister on the farm, but also haunting fragmented snippets of Franz’s existence elsewhere, and Diehl and Pachner narrate the couple’s actual letters when Franz and Fani are not together.

These true events occurred almost 80 years ago, and “A Hidden Life” – a nearly three-hour experience – works as a diary of memories, as flashes of beauty, belief, love, and pain gel into the most moving cinematic experience of the year.

⭐⭐⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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