"A Hidden Life" (2019 release; 172 min.) brings the story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter and his family. We are reminded that "the following story is based on true events", and as the film opens we get archive footage of the Nazis overpowering much of Europe and the cult of personality surrounding Adolf Hitler, who is idolized by the German masses. We then go to "St. Radegund, Austria 1939" as we get to know Franz and his wife and three young daughters. They live a simple life, farming the land and making ends meet as best they can. Life is hard but good. Then one day Franz is conscripted and we go to "Enns Military Base, 1940", where the Austrian conscripts are required to pledge their loyalty to Hitler. Franz refuses, and is taken prisoner... To tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest opus (don't just call it a film) from writer-director Terrence Malick. His recent work has been decidedly mixed, including 2016's "Knight of Cups" and, even more of a head-scrtacher, 2017's "Song to Song" that was his worst movie ever. I am very pleased to tell you that "A Hidden Life" finds Malick back at his very best (think: "Days of Heaven", "The Tree of Life"), as he brings the true story of the WWII Austrian conscientious objector. First, Malick in his well-know way of free-flowing photography manages to create a bond between the characters and us, the viewers. As we watch the seemingly idyllic yet harsh life for Franz and his family in the small Austrian village, we very much care what might (or might not) happen to them. The movie's first hour is almost dream-like (or as my friend with whom I saw the movie said: "it's a one hour trailer"). Second, the movie sports a fabulous orchestral score, courtesy of veteran Hollywood composer James Newton Howard, that matches, or underscores, the movie's overall feel and mood perfectly. Third, the mostly no-names ensemble cast is absolutely delightful. I admit not being familiar with the lead performers' prior work, but August Diehl (as Franz) and Valerie Pachner (as his wife) are absolute tops. Keep your eyes out for a brief (maybe 10 min.) appearance by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as the Nazi Captain who first interrogates Franz as to why he refuses to pledge his loyalty to Hitler. Last, but certainly not least, one cannot escape or deny that this film is incredibly timely and political, as the parallels between what happened in Nazi Germany and what is going with the current POTUS are undeniable and, frankly, scary. Not pledging loyalty to Trump is what erstwhile FBI director James Comey got him fired in 2017, if you'll recall. For Trump, it's all about me! me! me!, nothing less and nothing more. Just another cult of personality.
"A Hidden Life" premiered to immediate acclaim at the 2019 Cannes film festival where it won several prizes and Fox snapped it up for big bucks. The movie started rolling out into theaters just before Christmas, and I couldn't wait to see it. The Christmas Eve screening where I saw this at with a friend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati was attended dismally (6 people in total), much to my surprise and disappointment. If you are a fan of Terrence Malick, or simply in the mood for an epic WWII conscientious objector drama, I'd readily suggest you check this out, be it in the theater, on Amazon Instant Video, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion. For me, "A Hidden Life" is a WINNER all the way, and my no. 2 movie of the year (after "1917"). .