Movie Review: “A Hidden Life” ponders how one confronts evil in Hitler’s Reich

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Breathtakingly beautiful, poetic, soulful and chillingly topical, Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Place” searches for righteousness in a time when cruelty and evil are the popular will.

This dream fugue of a movie is three hour meditation on the bravery of conscientously objecting to the actions of one’s government and refusing to swear fealty to a leader when to do so would be a betrayal of yourself and your morality.

It’s a World War II allegory for our times, a lone Austrian refusing to “go along,” to “Heil Hitler” even though every Austrian around him insists on it. And it’s a love story, an all-consuming romance that cannot withstand the test that this moral choice forces Franz Jägerstätter to make.

Franz, played by August Diehl of “The Command” and “Allied” and “Inglourious Basterds,” is an Alpine farmer who, with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) has made a life in in their village, Radegund. It’s a gorgeous place, a world peopled by those content with lives of physical labor ruled only by the demands of each changing season.

They plow and plant, care for the cows, chickens and pigs, scythe the wheat in late summer and haul it to the waterwheel grist mill with their donkey.

Malick presents Radegund as a quiet pastoral idyll, living in harmony with nature, all but untouched by the modern world.

But it’s 1939. Hitler, we remember, has annexed his native Austria into the German Reich. And Austrians, especially the village mayor (Karl Markovics), are thrilled. He’s “broken our chains” “lifted the people” and made Austria great again.

Franz and Fani pay little mind to the beer-swilling pundits of village green. They’re too consumed with each other, their little girls and their work to pay it much mind. Then, the Reich invades Poland. And then Franz is drafted.

He details the training at a nearby ancient fortress in long, loving letters home. But as the recruits are indoctrinated by triumphalist documentary footage of the senseless, dehumanizing slaughter their cruel, amoral state and its twisted leader impose on Europe, Franz has attacks of conscience.

Fortunately, he’s sent home after training. But he’s made up his mind. He will not swear loyalty to this monster. He will not take part in this amoral horror. As France collapses, Fani, Franz and others in the village hope that the war is over and he won’t face the choice he’s already made his mind up about.

We know better.

I shrugged off Malick after the swooning, indulgent sentimentality of “Tree of Life.” His recent films “Song of Songs,” “Knight of Cups” and “To the Wonder” left me cold. But “A Hidden Place” is closer to the mark, a film that marries his style — dreamy, immersive images of nature and natural beauty — to a subject that suits it.

This is his most beautiful film since “A New World,” his most poetic since “The Thin Red Line.” “A Hidden Place” is a reminder that nobody’s movies are as pretty to look at as Malick’s. And that beauty is a vivid underpinning to the picture’s over-arching message.

How could anyone this attuned to this world possibly go along with the unnatural destruction, inhuman cruelty and slaughter of a state that has gone mad, led by hate-mongering demagogue?

The camera roams and hovers, hanging on the shoulders of characters — on a farm field, on a country lane, in a training facility or later, in a prison — as we hear and see snippets of conversation. Too much of it is in voice over, a Malick crutch. A lot of is couched in the language of soul-searching profundity.

“Don’t they know evil when they see it?”

“The whole world’s sick.”

“Conscience makes cowards of us all.”

“You can’t change the world. The world’s stronger.”

“No evil can happen to a good man.”

Fani is the more devout of the two, not puzzling over Franz’s choice, having the faith that God will intervene on the side of the righteous, trying to be resolute in the face of the awful consequences everybody involved knows are coming.

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An interesting stylistic touch — voices are never raised as Franz and Fani debate and discuss this, and then involve a few neighbors of the same mind, and even the village priest. Faith is extolled and tested, but even The Catholic Church wants him to do what it does — just go along to get along, ride this whole Hitler thing out.

Once Franz’s decision becomes public, though, tempers flare, voices rise, shunning sets in and threats begin.

Dealing with military authority and The State has an altogether different tone. Most of the dialogue, save for the odd unsympathetic villager, is performed in English. German, in this film, is the language of authority, hate and cruelty.

We need only that moment Franz declines, in uniform, to swear an oath to Adolf to know what’s coming. If we’ve learned nothing else from World War II movies, it’s that sadism and savagery are best delivered in German.

And if America’s current political plight has taught us nothing else, it’s that resorting to violence is easier after we’ve become numb to the language of violence.

The performances are sympathetic, but for all the close-ups and efforts at absorbing us into these lives in this world, the characters remain remote, removed. There’s warmth but nothing that approached emotionally wrenching.

Malick, of course, takes his time getting us to this point. He’s an indulgent filmmaker, and as much as I appreciate the meditative rhythms of story, inner conflict, setting and consequences here, “A Hidden Life” is slow to the point of slack.

The picture’s so long it buries nice cameos by Matthias Schoenaerts, as a lawyer who calls this protest “madness” that “no one outside of this prison” will ever hear of, and the great German actor Bruno Ganz, famed for “Downfall” and a million Internet “Hitler” speech memes. Ganz plays an aged officer who sits in judgment of Franz’s “treason” to The Leader and his regime.

Still, it’s a lovely, immersive experience, a movie that invites the viewer to ponder the nature of conscience, the bravery of conscientous objecting and the realization of how what happened there could happen anywhere that people embrace ignorance and hate, and others either go along with them, or do nothing.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including violent images.

Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Matthias Schoenaerts and Bruno Ganz.

Credits: Written and directed by Terrance Malick. A Fox Searchlight release.’

Running time: 2:54

 

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