In Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, novelist Mary Ann Evans’ 19th-century challenge to idealism, hypocrisy and religion, Evans (using the nom de plume George Elliot) penned a devastating tale of a settled community facing unwelcome change.
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, wrote Evans. “And that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half-owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Indeed, two of those unheralded people who led “a hidden life” but had a profound effect on the lives of countless others, are the pillars of A Hidden Life, director Terence Malick’s modern masterpiece. Any preconceived idea of what you may have thought was dignified, principled or devout will be shaken to your core when you see A Hidden Life; and it’s quite likely that this 3-hour epic will settle into a very particular corner of your soul
Based on the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, A Hidden Life shines a virtuous light on an Austrian peasant farmer who refused to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler during World War II, sacrificing everything, including his life, rather than fight for the Nazis. Despite pleas from neighbors and even his village’s faith leaders, Franz (August Diehl) refuses the oath. With his quiet act of resistance, he asks, “If leaders are evil, what does one do?” Wrestling with the knowledge that his decision will mean arrest and likely death, Franz finds strength in the love of his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner), also ostracized by the village while she tries to raise the couple’s three young daughters solo.
Moments before A Hidden Life‘s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Pachner paused on the red carpet to tell Boise Weekly, “When Terrence [Malick] first called me about the possibility of doing this film, we didn’t make any small talk. We immediately talked about the world and life; and in that moment, I just felt, ‘Wow, that’s where I want to go. This is someone I want to work with.’”
And co-star Diehl described working with Pachner as equally special. “We were both very much devoting ourselves to our roles because it has so much to do with trust. We risked a lot. And with Valerie I felt—from the very first moment—that she was willing to do the same.”
A Hidden Life draws on actual letters exchanged between Franz and Franziska while Jagerstatter was in prison. A side note: The film prompted me to seek out a used book shop in Toronto the day after the premiere; and I was blessed to have found a paperback collection of the Jagerstatter’s letters, translated into English and published by Orbis Books. I haven’t been able to put it down since.
As compelling as the story is, the landscapes of A Hidden Life will be indelibly etched into your memory. The Jagerstatters lived in the beautiful but tiny village of St. Radegund in Upper Austria, near Salzburg—ironically in the same province where Hitler was born and spent his early youth. Malick, being the perfectionist filmmaker that he is, insisted on shooting his key scene in St. Radegund itself.
“Most importantly, we learned that the natural light levels in the beauteous mountains of St. Radegund were very much part of all of our decision-making process,” said supervising art director Steve Summersgill. The film also features breathtaking location shots in the village’s cathedrals, remote farms, mountainside orchards and rural pathways. “Nature and the natural environment all became part of the story’s subtext, and the locations provided us with a foundation to build upon.” Filming also took place in the actual home of the Jagerstatters which, over the years, has become a pilgrimage site. Even the bedroom is theirs and looks as it did eight decades ago. Franziska’s lovely embroidery still hangs on the walls, and her surviving three daughters still live in or near St. Radegund.
The attention to detail is astonishing, the performances luminous, but it is A Hidden Life‘s story that is heart-stopping. Don’t miss this one.