Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Dec 22, 2019 5:57 pm 
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VALERIE PACHNER, AUGUST DIEHL IN A HIDDEN LIFE

Wartime moral courage is turned into audience frustration

The new Terrence Malick film is a departure in focus and source from past ones, which are fictionalized family sagas spanning generations. Set during World War II, this is a true story and a simple one, though the action depicted is far from easy for those involved. It tells how an Austrian conscientious objector who will not swear allegiance to Hitler, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), chooses prison and execution, leaving behind a widow and orphans. He could have signed a paper, and might have answered the draft performing non-combat medical duties. But he refuses to lie, even though his deed goes unnoticed in the world - a "hidden life." Eventually the life came to light and he was exonerated. Thomas Merton wrote a chapter about Jägerstätter, and in 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued an apostolic exhortation declaring him a martyr.

The main action spans only a couple of years, yet Malick makes it seem like a generation, because he chooses to stick to his usual grand, ceremonious style. The wide-angle, wide-screen cinematography is rapturous and beautiful. The voice-over narrations come and go in leisurely, meditative fashion. The storytelling is poetic. It also elides details and is confusing, despite the simple facts.

One may ask, is this really the most appropriate way to recount the tale? After the man is arrested, Malick drags things out forever before the inevitable execution. And then when it finally comes, we don't get to see it. (Hanging, firing squad, and beheading are alluded to - a scene shows it's a guillotine.) It would seem like after waiting nearly three hours, mostly by his side, we would get to accompany Jägerstätter along the last mile, the final minutes. But no. After all the beauty, the poetry, and the meditativeness, and finally the interminable waiting, we deserve that simple reward. It's infuriating.

Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) run a small farm in the Austrian alps with three young girls, an adult sister, and Franz's mother. Their house arguably looks smaller and simpler than the historical Jägerstätter farmstead in St Radegund shown on Wikepedia. They are a stony-faced couple, she in plain dress, he in tight vest with slicked-down hair. They look period and authentic. The film excels in its authentic look, and the unglamorous people contribute. Fani recounts their first meeting: he arrived on a motorcycle at a country dance, she wore her best dress, she "knew at once." These early segments, the viewer's honeymoon, so to speak, are the most economical and engaging. The photography of the green mountain region and the farmers is like some beautiful Fifties travel magazine. Later, though, I found myself asking: is all this really relevant? Must it be love at first sight, must the little farm be idyllic (if scythe harvesting can be that)? None of this is believable. Partly this is no doubt because Malick is out of his element. This isn't Texas, but Austria. At the same time the visual and editing styles are all too familiar.

Malick does something strange with the language here. At a distance, from the start, people speak German, sometimes barely audibly, without subtitles. When they're up close, in dialogue scenes, they speak English. Later, as rabid Nazis appear, starting with the little village mayor, they rant and rail and scream in German - always without subtitles. In the courtroom when the persecution attorney engages in a screaming rant against Franz, it's in German, untranslated. Franz understands what he's being accused of, since he understands German, but we, the non-German members of the audience, aren't granted that privilege. This isn't fair to us, or to the German language, which is not ever, for natives, a meaningless rant. It's as if the language itself is being demonized - as it was in old American WWII movies.

This is an example of what is maddening about Malick: his cavalier, arbitrary choices. He plays by his own rules. When that worked for me, as it powerfully did in Tree of Life, which won Malick the Palme d'Or at Cannes and I saw it in Paris, it was exciting and challenging. By the time his stylistic gestures had started to feel like a shtick, as it did two films later with The Knight of Cups, his self-indulgent mannerism and weak story base had become infuriating and alienating.

People get very physical here, and that too becomes mannered. Franz and Fani are all over each other, pulling at each other, hugging, caressing. When Franz returns from military training they grab each other out on the country trail and it seems for a while as if they may never let each other go. Not surprisingly, much later when Fani visits Franz in prison after he's been condemned to die they immediately grab each other and start kissing, only to be violently wrenched apart by the guards. Wouldn't the orderly German guards have made sure they sat down across the table from each other to begin with? In his cell Franz repeatedly gets pummeled, beaten, and tormented. Prisoners even touch each other out in the prison yard. In one strange scene, condemned prisoners kiss each other on the face while awaiting execution. Malick drags out Franz's prison sufferings, constantly interrupting them with increasingly less idyllic scenes back at the farm, where the landscape remains green and lovely, but Fani and the girls are spat upon by the distinctly illiberal villagers.

The book of Franz's exchanges of letters with his wife while in prison must have seemed to provide an ideal basis for Malick's screenplay, given his love of voiceovers. The film includes numerous real details. Its physicality veers into excess, but its authentic period look is admirable. In its storytelling, the film also leaves out various complications. Malick's style isn't suited to conveying precisely nuanced historical narrative. Moreover his dreamy manner is unsuited to elucidating the rigorous thought of a man of intense moral conviction. There's a big difference between poetic musing and wrestling with one's conscience. We need to know less about the lovely landscape of the Austrian alps and more about the thought process of the noble protagonist.

A Hidden Life, 174 mins., debuted at Cannes May 19, 2019, showing in two dozen other international festivals. Limited US theatrical release Dec. 13; UK, Jan. 17, 2010. Metascore 78%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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