August Diehl is the dying ember, a spark of light, contained within the very core of Terence Malick's A Hidden Life, a timely piece of masterpiece cinema so achingly familiar and so immersive in past and present that it is, without doubt, a film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Malick's most embraced masterworks such as Apocalypse Now, Come and See, and The Thin Red Line.
When Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (a stunningly perfect Diehl) questions "What's happened to our country?" it takes only a few moments to realize that these very same words have been mumbled by many of us, across the political and theological spectrums, in this very day and in this very time. Did Malick create such a film intentionally? It's hard to say. It's both possible and not possible as Malick has for years explored the world of man's relationship to the spiritual realm both internally and externally.
What's undeniable is that A Hidden Life feels familiar, though it is a story set in World War II, Diehl's Franz is a simple man, a farmer living with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and his three daughters. They live hard lives in their idyllic village, the relative peace of their village indicative of shared common interests and shared values.
Or so it would seem.
War breaks out. It impacts their daily lives, daily lives that are now subject to the growing expectation that their moral code becomes intertwined with their patriotism and their values become increasingly flexed to the growing impulsivity demanded of wartime sacrifice and a growing sense of nationalism and allegiance.
Franz struggles with this expectation, his moral center as a pacifist and devout Christian at conflict with the expectation that he pledge allegiance to Hitler and Nazi Germany to which Austria has been annexed. Franz cannot justify the atrocities he is witnessing, atrocities seemingly embraced by those within his village with whom it seemed he once shared common values.
A Hidden Life is based on a true story. It's a story that looks and feels familiar, though instead of a Bonhoeffer or a Sophie Scholl it comes alive in the person of a humble farmer for whom there would, for years, never really be any sense of greatness or any memorials built until he was beatified in 2007. It would seem that Malick himself is celebrating this very fact, illuminating the fact that it's all the unsung revolutionaries who are the true heroes of the world and the ones truly affecting change and lasting impact.
Malick has always searched for that dying ember as a filmmaker, that spark of light against darkness and that thread of humanity against the inhumane. Malick struggled with this search in films such as To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, all films that didn't so much tarnish Malick's image as they simply made us wonder, at least a little if Malick had forgotten what he was looking for after all.
A Hidden Life brings us all the Malick elements we know and love - whispery voiceovers, iconic and breathtaking vistas, and occasionally dizzyingly humane camerawork - and immersed them in the tucked-away village of Radegund, a world seemingly away from the Nazi pillagers yet a world destined to be impacted by them.
The line between a world of tenderness and one of cruelty is a thin one in A Hidden Life, especially when the Nazis eventually catch up to Franz's resistance and do whatever it takes to break him while Franziska is left to hold down the homestead despite the inevitable shunning one experiences when going against the masses politically and within religious community. For the most part, it is Franz who experiences evil, though Franziska's shunning has its moments. Similarly, Malick doesn't deny that even amidst great evil there are moments of light such as Franz's apparent kinship with a fellow prisoner (Franz Rogowski) that offers some of his few moments of lightness and being.
While Franz was a man of faith, Malick takes pains to share that for him his actions weren't so much about this faith as they were about simply choosing the right action rather than the wrong one. The film itself is surprisingly secular, accessible to the masses really, and one gets the strong sense this is exactly how Franz would have wanted it.
A Hidden Life is one of the rare films that earns its nearly three-hour running time, nary a single moment wasted and every moment infused with Malick's unquenchable thirst for hope against hate, humanity versus inhumanity. The film is a prayer, not of rote or repetition, but borne of the kind of desperation we feel when we watch our lives falling apart or our loved ones dying or we witness unfathomable suffering and we feel helpless to make it stop. Franz is a man desperate to maintain what he sees as his humanity even as he is surrounded by increasing evil and those who would profess to have become redefined with their humanity intact. They have become complicit without knowing it, they being the church and the State and the people and the village and all those who know they are witnessing evil but do nothing to stop it.
Franz knows the truth that no one else can see or feel or hear.
Jorg Widmer's wide lensing is seemingly epic in scale, capturing the majesty and wonder and hope of the life once hidden and now revealed, while Widmer's lens never flinches once evil takes its grip. James Newton Howard's original score twirls and swirls and envelopes and becomes an experience unto itself. Sebastian T. Krawinkel's production design is simply flawless.
A Hidden Life isn't quite a masterpiece, but it's damn near one. It's a mesmerizing film, nearly flawless in presentation and unforgettable in tone and subject and dialogue and imagery. August Diehl is mesmerizing here, though the same can be said for nearly everyone in one of the year's best ensemble efforts.
One can't help but wonder if A Hidden Life is simultaneously a work of wonder and a confession of sorts, a film that detours ever so slightly from Malick's obsessive search for light by acknowledging that there are times and spaces where finding the light becomes a futile effort for those who refuse to let the divine speak.
A Hidden Life, indeed, is both the tapestry of salvation and summation of all that is.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic