Terrence Malick is back! Or maybe he never went anywhere. Those propositions have divided critics who either see everything he directed after 2011’s The Tree of Life as failures, or who find his subsequent cinematic experiments to be vital additions to his oeuvre. I tend to fall into the latter category, having considerable affection for To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, which seems like a transition of sorts back to the more tightly scripted narrative films he made up through The Tree of Life. Now, with A Hidden Life, Malick returns to his favorite subjects: religion, morality, family. It may not be a return to form per se, but it’s top-notch Malick, and already one of this year’s best films.
A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. We first see him tending to his crops in the hilly town of St. Radegund, far above the clouds. (The film was originally titled Radegund before Malick settled on A Hidden Life, which is derived from a line in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.) He lives with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and their three young daughters. Malick and his new cinematographer, Jörg Widmer, film the Austrian landscape with some of the lushest greens ever depicted on film, and Franz’s whole family spends plenty of time frolicking in the beautiful surroundings (though he has significantly toned down the frolicking now that he’s working with a tighter script).
Franz first receives military training sometime after the rise of the Nazis but before the start of the Second World War. While there, he befriends a fellow soldier named Waldlan (Transit’s Franz Rogowski), whom he will fortuitously meet again years later. Through the luck of a deferment for farmers, he’s able to return home to his village, but his anti-war, anti-Nazi stances make him an enemy of the other villagers. Malick doesn’t go out of his way to construct contemporary parallels in A Hidden Life, but viewers might breathe a sigh of recognition at the way some of the villagers so whole-heartedly adopt cruel, ugly sentiments once they’re presented aloud by a compelling leader. By 1943, Franz’s deferment ends, at which point his unwillingness to serve sends him on a path to the guillotine.
Malick depicts Franz not as a saint looking to serve as an example for others, but merely a man concerned with good and evil. He’s told by multiple figures that no one knows of his principled stand, and that it won’t have any meaningful impact on the Nazi war effort. But he’s not looking to be a hero — just to do the right thing. Diehl’s expressive face is often contorted into anguished looks as he wrestles with his decision. His moral position opens his wife and children up to harassment and even assault from other villagers, and his death will leave them barely able to care for their crops and livestock. Though A Hidden Life is primarily Franz’s story, there are plenty of lovely scenes with Franziska at home, both with her children and with her sister, who lives with the family.
The contours of Franz’s story are understandably inspiring, and it’s not surprising that he was beatified in 2007. (Pope Benedict XVI made regular Sunday walks to St. Radegund as a child.) Malick’s films have always had elements of the religious and the divine, but this is his first film to expressly examine a character’s journey of faith. His camera has always been pointing toward the heavens, into the sun; and when he wasn’t looking up, Malick was looking for the holy closer to us, in the tiny, innocent creatures that populate our world. Now he’s kept his camera pointed straight ahead and found holiness in man himself.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15