A Matter of Conscience

A Hidden Life examines one man's non-compliance with the Nazis in WWII.

A few notes on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life: It’s a pleasure to see Malick, the visionary creator of Badlands and Days of Heaven, reaching out for a true story in its account of the moral, and ultimately physically fatal, ordeal of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector in World War II.

In his patented slow, patient style, writer-director Malick shows what happens when Jägerstätter (German actor August Diehl) decides to ignore the general military call-up after Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. For moral reasons that he has nearly three hours of screen time to reflect on, Franz commits himself and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) to their hill-country farm labors instead of enlisting in the violent conquest of Europe.

It is a foregone conclusion that this resistance will end badly for Franz. But filmmaker Malick is equally committed, by the steady, cinematic/poetic accretion of character details, to tell the tragic anti-war story in his own stately way. A typical Hollywood movie from the WWII years (1941-1945 for the United States) might telescope a similar act of moral bravery into two or three quick scenes to make its point about the courage of a lone anti-fascist — perhaps played by John Qualen or Paul Lukas.

Instead Malick — with the aid of Diehl’s rock-solid demeanor as well as the enthralling scene-setting of cinematographer Jörg Widmer and composer James Newton Howard — takes time to etch the foundations of Franz’s non-violence. A Hidden Life is not a routine war movie, any more than The New World is an ordinary Euro-settlers-versus-Native Americans adventure yarn. By the time the blade finally falls on Franz, we have no doubt that he deserves the Roman Catholic designation of Blessed.

Kudos to actors Diehl, Pachner, Jürgen Prochnow, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, and the late Bruno Ganz. But thanks to Malick for using such an emotionally powerful dramatic premise as the basis of his comeback.

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