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The tale of an Austrian who refused to serve Hitler

Jochen Kürten eg
December 12, 2019

Based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to join the army during World War II, Terrence Malick's film "A Hidden Life" is a philosophical epic on convictions in times of crisis.

Filmszene Ein Verborgenes Leben
Image: 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Reiner Bajo

Cinema as a religious experience: That's the way Terrence Malick's three-hour new film, A Hidden Life, has been described. After its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, it will be released in cinemas worldwide in the days to come and on January 30, 2020 in Germany.

The film caused quite a stir at the film festival and is bound to further divide critics.

Franz Jägerstätter
The film is based on Franz Jägerstätter's tale of resistanceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/APA/Erna Putz

Based on true events, the plot of A Hidden Life could be summarized in three sentences. Malick tells the story of a farmer called Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who lives in a remote mountain village in western Austria in the early 1940s with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their three children.

After being drafted for a first series of military drills for the Germany army, Franz Jägerstätter refuses to perform his military service on moral grounds. He is then arrested, interned and finally executed in 1943 at the age of 36.

Franz Jägerstätter was deeply religious, and his understanding of the Bible motivated him to become a conscientious objector, a stand that would ultimately lead to his death. His wife supported his decision.

Read more: Did Hollywood collaborate with the Nazis?

After 1945, Franz Jägerstätter long remained a controversial figure in Austria

Jägerstätter's consistent refusal to serve for the Nazis right until his death was seen as a betrayal in national and conservative political and church circles.  

"Loving the fatherland means loyalty. Those who break away from this loyalty are traitors," a pastoral brief from 1947 declared in reference to his case.

In the 1960s, a process of reviewing these positions began, partly prompted by the publication of a biography on the Austrian conscientious objector by US sociologist Gordon Zahn, which outlined how members of Jägerstätter's community and religious authorities positioned themselves against his rebellion. 

The Catholic Church changed its position, albeit decades later. In 2007, Franz Jägerstätter was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

Today, in Austria, there are monuments, roads and schools dedicated to the conscientious objector.

And now, the new film by US director Terrence Malick, shot in Austria and Germany and featuring actors Michael Nyqvistand  Bruno Ganz in their final performances, will introduce the historical figure to a larger international audience. 

Read more: Movies under Hitler: between propaganda and distraction

Film still 'A Hidden Life'
August Diehl in the role of Franz Jägerstätter Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Filmfest Cannes/DreamWorks SKG

A war film without battlefields

A quote by 19th-century writer George Eliot closes the film: "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

The quote embodies the tale's core idea: It's not only the great figures of history that drive change in the world. The consistent actions of an individual can be just as decisive, as Franz Jägerstätter demonstrated.

A Hidden Life is not a "typical" World War II film. The work rather attempts to penetrate the depths of Franz Jägerstätter's conscience through image and movement, sound and music, as well as acting. Yet Malick does not use the cinematic tools of storytelling conventionally. His meditative approach combines long flowing camera movements and off-screen dialogues.

Terrence Malick behind the camera
Terrence Malick in 1978Image: picture-alliance/Everett Collection

A director with cult status

Terrence Malick is seen as a legend of modern US cinema. Born in 1943 in Ottawa, Illinois, he studied philosophy in England, researching among others Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He later turned to cinema. In the 1970s, he directed two classic works that belong to the New Hollywood movement, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). He then took a long pause, celebrating his comeback as an auteur filmmaker 20 years later with The Thin Red Line (1998), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. He has since directed seven more films, including the 2011 Palme d'Or-winning film, The Tree of Life.

Contributing to his legendary status, Malick never gives interviews, doesn't attend the premiere of his films and does not allow anyone to take photos of him.

Critics divided over 'A Hidden Life'

Malick's films after The Thin Red Line became increasingly philosophical, avoiding conventional dramaturgy. Voice-overs, complex monologues, thoughts about the state of the world accompanied by strong imagery in wandering camera sequences have become the filmmaker's unmistakable trademarks.

Some critics, however, see his signature style as contrived. But his films were never conceived to please crowds in the first place.

Film still 'A Hidden Life'
Jägerstätter alongside his supportive wife (Valerie Pachner)Image: 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Reiner Bajo

With his new feature film, Terrence Malick partially returns to his early style. A Hidden Life tells a story with a beginning and an end and an almost conventional narrative. Yet he does not abandon his philosophical reflections and his strong aesthetics along the way, turning the seemingly simple plot into a three-hour epic work.

Ultimately, A Hidden Life tells the story of a martyr, a man caught between the Church's authority and his personal faith. It's a film that tries to uncover what being human truly means, and how it's possible to hold convictions in times of crisis.