Acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick does something he hasn’t done in years with his new film A Hidden Life — he attempts to tell an actual, old-fashioned story. This may come as good news to those who once celebrated his mastery in such early films as Badlands and Days of Heaven, but may have grown disillusioned by the arty, free-form posturings of his recent years. (See: To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song.) In some ways, his latest is a return to form with Malick recounting the true tale of Franz Jäggerstätter (a fine, fully committed August Diehl), an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II who sacrifices family, friends and his own life for his convictions.
Unfortunately, the director now seems genetically unable to tell a straight-ahead story, even a substantial one, wandering off into the gorgeously shot mists of mountains, valleys and skies as birds chirp, sheep graze, brooks babble and nature leads him into three hours of digressive meanderings. For those who believe that this is Malick at his most profound, A Hidden Life is bliss. Others must be forgiven their impatience.
Things look so idyllic as Franz and his family enjoy their life on the farm in the Austrian alps that you half expect Julie Andrews to run at the camera trilling about the hills being alive with the sound of music. He and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), work hard at cutting wheat and raising two blond daughters, with one more on the way. Still, the couple has time to hold hands and steal a kiss. Are they happy? Voiceovers tell us so. Franz and Fani say little to us or each other.
Cue the storm clouds and the Nazis who, in 1940, demand that all able-bodied Austrian men must join the war effort and take an oath of loyalty to Hitler. The village mayor (Jürgen Prochnow) drinks the Kool Aid. Franz is not so sure, but reports to military training as directed. Still, when the time comes to go to war, our hero resists on moral grounds and is hauled off to prison. Meanwhile, his wife and children are treated as pariahs in the village. You’ll wait in vain for the moment when Franz, the good Christian, explains himself. Malick, always stingy with dialogue, simply observes as the character holds to his principles and everyone from the local bishop (Michael Nyqvist) to a pair of oddly sympathetic Nazis, (Matthias Schoenaerts and the late Bruno Ganz), urge him to sign the oath that will free him at the cost of his conscience.
The real Jäggerstätter was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, but the role as conceived by Malick gives the willing and able Diehl very little to help us understand the man behind the saint. And the sweeping, suitable-for-framing vistas provided by cinematographer Jorg Widmer only add to the frustration. Malick has created a war film without a single scene of war, of Jewish persecution, of the thought process that helped Franz hold steadfast. It’s one thing to fashion a film about one man’s blind faith; it’s another to keep audiences in the dark about the fundamentals that made him human.