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A Hidden Life

Year: 2019
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner

It's as if Terrence Malick took the criticisms of Knight of Cups and Song to Song to heart and decided to tell a bit more of a story rather than just collect and present a series of moody visual vignettes.

But he seems the least likely filmmaker to listen to or care about what critics think. It's just as likely he came across the true story of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter and thought it was worth telling. Jägerstätter lives a fairly idyllic life in a breathtaking farm village nestled in the Austrian alps with his beautiful wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and a trio of adorable young daughters.

But a storm is brewing across Europe in the form of the expanding power of the Nazi party, and years before anybody knew how murderous the regime would be, both people and entire countries across Europe bowed in fear or fell for their unity and purity line and worked with them to root out anyone threatening to undermine them.

At first it's just raised voices at the outdoor pub where the townspeople meet and talk about the issues of the day, but soon most of the able bodied men of the village are called up for training. Saddened to be away from his family for so long and wanting nothing to do with Hitler's warmongering, Franz endures it however he can but when France surrenders and everyone assumes it'll all be over soon he's sent back home.

But while he and his wife and girls try to get on with their lives, things are far from easy. Franz' objections to military service and the war effort are well known and his former friends start to turn on him. When he's then called up to join the German army with a few others things go from bad to worse. This time there's no apparent end date to his absence from his family, and Fani, trying to care for the farm with her mother, is being increasingly ostracised by the townspeople because of her husband's stance.

Franz stands his ground against the requirement that he swears allegiance to Germany and Hitler and is thrown in military prison. The powers that be give him more than one out – telling him if he just signs the document he'll be sent to a menial clerical position or will even be allowed home.

But it's a story about a man so principled about the world he wants to leave for his children and for his conscience to be clear in the face of God he's prepared to sacrifice his life and never see his family again to uphold it.

It's easy enough to see what became of the real Jägerstätter if you look up the story online so I won't spoil it here. But Malick's script does an expert job of quietly squeezing the hope out of you, leaving you (and the characters) only the merest sliver of it that things will turn out. I don't remember it being terribly specific about the period, but I found myself hoping against hope that the news would come that the Allies had stormed Normandy or the Soviets had reached the Führerbunker.

The approach – of combining a definite story with his signature creative style – makes this the best narrative film from Malick since The Thin Red Line. At almost three hours long it would have been intolerable if it'd been one of his tone poem meditations, but despite the apparent slightness of the plot as described above, it manages to keep you intellectually as well as emotionally invested throughout.

Thankfully Malick isn't interested in Michael Bay quick cuts or Tarantino verite – the locations are stunning and his camera department and DP Jörg Widmer makes full use of the lush surroundings. Every costume, building and detail feels authentic for the period and setting.

It's a worthy tribute to someone who we all wish we'd be in life when it comes to the crunch, but hope we never have to find out.

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