In his newest film, Malick retraces the real-life tale of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a husband and farmer living in a remote Austrian mountain village at the outbreak of World War II, but who refuses to fight for Germany or swear allegiance to Hitler. And though Franz goes through his mandated basic training, when it comes time for the village to send troops to the front, he refuses, setting off a chain of ostracism, abuse, and persecution for himself, his wife, and children.
Malick’s visited World War II before, but where The Thin Red Line explored the toll war takes on soldiers and the world around them, A Hidden Life considers the cost paid by those on the home front who don’t buy whatever supposedly righteous message the high command is selling.
Despite the film’s setting, the war often feels very far away, even when it shifts to Berlin. Franz and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and their three young daughters, spend much of the nearly three-hour runtime tending to their land, grazing their livestock, clearing the stables, all of which are handled with the sun-dappled, low-angled, swaying lenses of Malick’s frequent cinematographer Jörg Widmer.
Though it’s Austria, circa 1940, Franz’s and Franziska’s lives in the village of St. Radegund begin simple and idyllic. But cracks gradually open up. The mayor is a quick convert to Naziism. Local gestapo members stalk Franz for donations for the war effort. And when he refuses the call to march off and declares himself a conscientious objector, it’s not long until the other villagers start shunning him.
Like his real-life inspiration, Franz’s opposition to the Third Reich is rooted in devout Catholicism. While A Hidden Life is too intimate to get into the Vatican’s shifting wartime politics, Franz’s ability to find protection in the church crumbles away, too, as priests and bishops become less empathetic to his position. It’s a reminder that while war can be big and immediate, its effects can strike deep and mature over weeks and months, and one never needs to see a tank or an airplane or an artillery shell to feel them.
The German Diehl is best known to English-speaking audiences for a very different World War II role—that of a loud, boisterous, and smirking Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds. Here, Diehl is quiet, caring, and contemplative. He and Pachner speak more of their lines in the form of letters and inner monologues after Franz and Franziska are separated than they do directly to each other, a trick that only deepens the film’s solemnity.
There are a couple oddities that distract, however. While most of the film is performed in accented English, Franz’s jailers bark at at him only in German, an intentional but noticeable choice when it happens nearly two hours in. And peppering the first half of the film with clips of Nazi propaganda does feel like laying the stakes on a bit thick.
Still, even at 174 minutes — the longest theatrical release of his career — A Hidden Life is Malick’s most complete film in the uneven near-decade since The Tree of Life. It’s also a much sharper look at internal resistance to the Nazis than Jojo Rabbit, which used Scarlett Johansson’s character more for chipper relief until suddenly offing her. Franz’s commitment to nonviolence and tolerance is heartfelt, and the rippling impacts his decision makes on his family are tangible.
It’s also Malick at his most Christian, a quality of his career that’s sometimes unnoticed, but seldom far from the surface. Franz makes his stand because it’s the right thing to do. No matter how bleak things become, he remains kind and gentle. It’s a prayer, maybe for tolerance and resistance, but most of all for commitment.