A Hidden Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Tobias Moretti, Matthias Schoenaerts, Maria Simon, Karen Neuhauser
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Runtime: 174 mins. Reviewed in Feb 2020
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mild themes and violence

This English-speaking, German, biographical drama based on real events, tells the story of a courageous man who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. The movie focuses on his attempts to respect human life, and his conscience, in terrible times.

The movie was rated among the top ten Independent movies of 2019 by the National Board of Review, and was awarded the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. The title of the film comes from the final sentence of George Eliot’s historical novel, “Middlemarch”. The film is the story of the spiritual faith of a devout Catholic Austrian farmer, and his personal commitment to justice.

Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) farms his land in the Austrian village of St. Radegund, as World War II breaks out. He is married to Franziska (Valerie Pachner), who he loves deeply, and they are a valued and respected couple in the rural community. When war breaks out, Franz is called up to training and he is separated from his wife and children for some months. He is sent back from training when it looks as if the war will end, but the war continues, and Franz and other men in the village are summoned to fight on the battle-field. Before they do so, the men are asked to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Franz refuses and villagers, critical (and fearful) of his stance, ostracise him and his family and behave to them inhumanely. Supported by the love of his wife and family, he stands steadfast against the threat of death, and after a long incarceration, was found guilty by trial, and executed in 1943 just before the War ended. He sought the support of the Bishop of Linz (Michael Nyqvist) and the pastor priest of his home town (Tobias Moretti), who urged him to relent. Franz objected to war generally, and to Nazi atrocities, in particular.

Franz Jagerstatter was put to death for “undermining military actions”, and was declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.

As one has come to expect from the movies of Terrence Malick, this film has outstanding  cinematography that sweeps the viewer from the pastoral beauty of the landscapes, mountains and farmlands of Europe to grim, dark spaces. Every scene in the film could be framed. It is a beautiful movie to look at and is an outstanding enactment of the force of religious faith, sacrifice and personal conviction. Jagerstatter was a modest but resolute man of faith whose beliefs about life and humanity were immovable, despite attempts by others to shake them.

This is not a film that focuses sternly on moral judgements about the issues it presents. Rather, it uses its story and its images to raise questions, inviting the viewer to contemplate them further. In  what way, for example, can one acquire the strength to bear the anguish of loved ones for the moral decisions one feels must be made? And, most important of all, what actions help us best to refuse to yield to the evil dictates of others? The film handles these and other weighty issues in a human, Christian way, and not by offering dogmatically delivered, moral prescriptions.

The film has some brutal scenes, especially those relating to Franz in prison, where he is treated cruelly by the guards. But the spiritual nature of the film transcends the brutality one sees, which  gives the movie enormous power. In the mix of what is beautiful with what is not, it explores conscientious objection and the human conflicts that it raises. It surrounds its treatment of the issues with the religious faith and conviction of an unpretentious, deeply religious man.

This is a quality film about a simple man at a historical time of great confusion, and shame. Franz “lived faithfully a hidden life” (taken from George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”). It is a visionary, inspiring movie, excellently directed, acted and photographed and one not to be missed.  It is a film of great emotional power, and one of the very best, that Terrence Malick has directed.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

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