Among his many detestable achievements, Donald John Trump, the 45th POTUS, has made Hitler popular again.
Not only among the neo-Nazis who have loudly slithered out of their dark hiding places, but also at the cinema. Taika Waititi’s tragicomic “Jojo Rabbit”, in which the writer/director/actor plays Hitler, is finding a spot atop (or near the top) of most “best of” 2019 lists, as well as earning Golden Globe and SAG Awards nominations which often leads to Oscar love.
Terrence Malick’s timely “A Hidden Life” (Fox Searchlight) does away with the comedy and goes straight for the tragedy. At just shy of three hours, it’s a heavy and difficult experience, tackling a multitude of topics, ranging from religious devotion and faith to loyalty to your homeland to making sacrifices for your family to the dedication of sticking to the belief that what you are doing is right at all costs.
Based on true events, “A Hidden Life” takes place between 1939 and 1943. It begins in St. Radegund, an Austrian farming village. Married farmers Franz (August Diehl) and Fani (Valerie Pachner) tend to their livestock and land. Malick’s camera has the kind of love affair with the vistas and other visuals that played out so beautifully in his Oscar-winning second film, 1978’s “Days of Heaven”.
We get a brief glimpse into their love story and the three young daughters that complete their family. By 1940, Franz is a soldier at a military base, and the couple’s wartime correspondence keeps them grounded during the separation.
Not long after Franz returns, thinking that life is back to normal even as the war rages on, farmers from the village are being called back to serve. Suddenly, Nazi soldiers are a disruptive presence in the peaceful countryside.
Devoutly Catholic Franz meets with his priest, tells him he can’t go back to the military if he’s called back, that he will not swear the oath to Hitler that Austrian soldiers are required to do. The priest reminds him that there will be consequences if that’s what he decides to do, that his sacrifice will not benefit anyone, that his duty is to the fatherland.
Pretty soon, everyone in the village, from the mayor to the townspeople and other farmers, are aware of Franz’s stance. Franz and Fani are harassed as the rural villagers are swept up in Fuhrer fever. And then Franz’s letter of conscription arrives.
Franz and Fani have a train station farewell. At the military base, Franz is the only soldier not swearing the oath. He is arrested. To say that A Hidden Life becomes almost unbearably bleak after that is an understatement. Sent to Tegel Prison in 1943, Franz is regularly humiliated and physically abused by guards.
Back on the farm, Fani has her own struggles. Franz’s mother is cruel to her, blames her for the way he is. Driven by her faith, she never gives up hope that Franz will survive. All Franz has to do is take the oath, sign a paper, and he can go free. Needless to say, that’s not in the cards. In the summer of 1943, Franz is given a military tribunal and is sentenced to death.
Malick, who has been prolific during the 21st century, lost his way with films such as “Song to Song” and “Knight of Cups”. With this powerful and profound period piece, he has clearly again found his purpose.