Hidden Life, A (2019): Terrence Malick’s WWI Epic Romance–What You Need to Know

Terrence Malick wrote and directed A Hidden Life, a fact-based, lyrically shot historical war drama, starring August Diehl and Valerie Pachner.

The film marks the final performances of two great actors, Swedish Michael Nyqvist and Swiss born and international star, Bruno Ganz (“Downfall”).

The film depicts the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer and devout Catholic who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II.

World premiering at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest (in competition), it was acquired by Fox Searchlight, which released it for Oscar consideration in December.

That studio had scored well with Malick’s 2011 Tree of Life, which won the Cannes Palme d’Or and alter received a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Austria, 1939. Peasant farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), born and bred in the small village of St. Radegund, is working his land when war breaks out. Married to Franziska (Fani) (Valerie Pachner), the couple are important members of the tight-knit rural community. They live a simple life with the passing years marked by the arrival of the couple’s three girls. Franz is called up to basic training and is away from his beloved wife and children for months.

When France surrenders and it seems the war might end soon, he is sent back from training. With his mother and sister-in-law Resie (Maria Simon), he and his wife farm the land and raise their children amid the mountains and valleys of upper Austria.

As the war goes on, Jägerstätter and the other able men in the village are called up to fight. Their first requirement is an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich, but despite his neighbors’ pleas, Jägerstätter refuses.

Aware that his decision will mean arrest and even death, Jägerstätter finds strength in Fani’s love and support.

Jägerstätter is taken to prison, first in Enns, then in Berlin, waiting for months for his trial. During his time in prison, he and Fani exchange letters, which offer much needed emotional and moral support to one another.

Meanwhile, their daughters are victims of growing hostility in the village over their father’s decision not to fight.

After months of brutal incarceration, he stands trial, found guilty and sentenced to death. Despite many opportunities to sign the oath of allegiance, Jägerstätter stubbornly stands up for his beliefs.

In the end, he is executed in August 1943, while his wife and three daughters survive.

Many critics found the tale to be brutally simplistic, linear, and too earnest for its own good.

But others (like me) emphasized the distinction that the tale makes between faith and religion (often thought to be the same). And there was no denying of the intensely romantic dimensions of the film as an art work.