“The Austrian Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector, refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II.” – IMDB
If you read my thoughts on Jojo Rabbit, you’ll remember my saying that there is no lack of World War II movies in this world. I would be interested to know if that genre isn’t the most touched-upon in the film industry. Which makes perfect sense, not only did the film industry rise during the lead up to World War II, but, more importantly, the story opportunities that era presents are boundless.
In Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, we follow Austrians Franz and Fani Jägerstätter as they struggle with and ultimately deal with the repercussions of Franz’s refusal to fight for the Nazis. It is visually stunning and challenges the viewer to reflect upon their spiritual and moral beliefs, but I will say, it’s not a movie for everyone. Let me clarify…
With a run time of three hours, A Hidden Life is not a light undertaking. Much of the first hour and a half can feel more life an art house film, a beautifully done PhD dissertation, or, to be honest, a gorgeous farming documentary. Filmed in South Tyrol, Italy, it truly is one of the most breathtaking locations I’ve ever seen in a movie and the cinematography team captures every aspect of what living in that location, at that time, entails. That being said, for the first half of the film, it can feel tedious, overreaching, and sparse. The dialogue is few and far between and, when the characters do speak, it’s generally only profound questioning of or insight into the meaning of life, and so can seem a bit pretentious. There are camera angles which can be discombobulating, looking straight up into an actor’s chin or cutting off the top part of her/his head. For movie-goers who like a more fast-paced experience, I’m going to encourage you to sit this one out.
However, if you’re willing to take on the entire journey, you will come to understand the artistic choices of the film by its conclusion. Ultimately, this movie centers around the questions we all struggle with: What is the meaning of life? Do our choices matter? How far we will follow our own morality? At one point, the audience member is not so subtly reminded that we are still facing these trials today. Franz is having a conversation with a man who paints at one of the local churches. The man describes how society (in 1943) likes to look back at Christ’s time and believe they wouldn’t have condemned him to death, they wouldn’t have joined the mob. It is almost as if Malick is breaking the fourth wall and saying, “HEY ALL OF YOU WHO SAY YOU WOULDN’T HAVE PERSECUTED THESE MINORITIES DURING THE HOLOCAUST, HOW IS THAT GOING TODAY?! ARE THERE STILL FAMILIES LOCKED IN DETENTION CELLS?! OKAY THEN…”
Through the film’s grappling with these questions we understand more about why the first half is presented the way it is. After long shots of daily life, you can begin to almost viscerally feel the surroundings. Fani digs into the soil, the daughters jump into a bale of hay, Franz sticks his head out of a car window into the fresh air. This is what it means to be alive. To feel and to feel everything. If not for outside circumstances, this would be (the film seems to insinuate) the primary focus of our lives, though we may lose site of that focus until our right to it is questioned.
Again, it’s not the type of movie that is going to interest or please everyone, but if you take the time and go into it with an open mind, it’s worth the watch!
Rating: 8 out of 10 Claire Bears
If you like this movie, you should also see: Hacksaw Ridge, Badlands, Thin Red Line
With: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon
Directed By: Terrence Malick