In Austria's Alps, 'A Hidden Life' Of World War II Resistance | Texas Public Radio

In Austria's Alps, 'A Hidden Life' Of World War II Resistance

Dec 23, 2019
Originally published on December 23, 2019 5:54 pm

Three years ago, a small film crew drove into the Austrian Alps in search of a remote valley. It would serve as one of the settings for Terrence Malick's vision of paradise.

"We'd taken a big, big risk when we decided to go," says the film's producer Grant Hill. "We had next to no funds. [We] felt, for some reason, we'd work that out as we went along — which, I wouldn't advise doing it again that way, but it worked. And this combination of the mountain background, the faces on the people, the weather really did — I mean, it was otherworldly."

The film came to be called A Hidden Life. It's based on the letters of an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis — and was executed for his resistance.

It's the latest film from acclaimed director Terrence Malick. He's known for epic movies like The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Like those films, Malick's latest is about grand themes like love, faith and war.

A Hidden Life opens in the dark with nature sounds. The screen then comes to life: mountain valleys, waterfalls, rivers flowing, clouds rolling.

Actor Valerie Pachner is from Austria. She's one of the stars of the film.

"There is this incredibly beautiful landscape," Pachner says. "But on the other hand there's also a certain darkness to it. And I always feel like — you know, there is these beautiful mountains, but then you have those very dark forests. And then when you think about the second World War, I feel like there's always sort of both, in nature. And that's what I feel Terry [Malick] really captured so well."

Terence Malick made the film with cinematographer Joerg Widmer.

August Diehl, Valerie Pachner and Director of Photography Joerg Widmer on the set of A Hidden Life.
Reiner Bajo / Twentieth Century Fox

"Nature, you have to capture when it happens," Widmer says. "So you can't design it. It's just: When it's dusk, you have to be there and capture the dusk. If you have heavy weather coming up, then you should be at the right place just to capture the wind, just capture the beauty of the clouds."

But the year is 1939, and that natural beauty is interrupted with the arrival of war planes. The German actor August Diehl plays the farmer who became a conscientious objector — his name was Franz Jägerstätter.

"He decided not to fight, and not to swear an oath to Hitler, and to not be part of the whole machinery of war," Diehl says. "What is a feeling at the first place becomes more and more a real decision, and he sticks to this and sacrifices his whole family for this until the very end."

Franz Jagerstatter expressed his doubts in letters to his wife. His resistance became a crisis of his Catholic faith, and his village turned against him and his family.

The writer Eric Benson wrote an article about Terrence Malick for Texas Monthly magazine two years ago. He says A Hidden Life is filled with the spiritual questions that have defined the elusive filmmaker's work.

"I think it's concerned with these really basic philosophical questions of: What should a good man do in the face of evil?" Benson says. "How do you navigate your loyalties to country and to God and to your own morality?"

Terence Malick is now 76 and lives in Austin, Texas. He hasn't given any interviews in decades.

"Probably if he were to show up and talk about all this, we wouldn't have, probably ... this kind of nice movies from him," says Diehl, the actor. "That's linked to each other. The silence in the public is saving energy for a language — which really matters."

That film language includes voiceovers, swirling images and widescreen landscapes. It's not for everyone.

"A Terrence Malick movie is almost like: If you were to shoot a normal movie, and then you were to take that footage and almost make an artistic collage out of it, kill the dialogue and have the images — instead of being tied together by a pretty conventional story — be tied together by sort of mood and ideas and images," Benson says. "So it's almost like watching a movie and having a dream about that movie. The Malick movie is that dream you have that night."

Despite its signature dream-like style, many critics have called A Hidden Life Terrence Malick's most direct film. Diehl says it offers an antidote to our current political culture.

"I have the feeling that we live in a world which is getting louder and louder," Diehl says. "And so it is very, very hard to find a silent place in ourselves where we can still see which is right and which is wrong. Therefore our movie is so relevant right now — it's not only politics; it's in a very simple way, a silent resistance of somebody who is hidden. Like, we all are actually hidden lives. Everybody lives a hidden life."

Pachner, who plays Fani Jägerstätter (Franz's wife), says that if the film insists on a political position, it is a message of kindness — and turning the other cheek.

"It always sounds cheesy when I say it, but I just feel it's true," Pachner says. "This tendency of hatred and being against each other: The only thing that can oppose that is love, in any sense. You know, not only in the romantic way, but also in the sense of being kind to your neighbors even though they are yelling at you; being kind to nature; being kind to whatever you are confronted with ... because this is what makes us human beings."

Franz Jägerstätter was executed at age 36 on Aug. 9, 1943. His letters are now on screen in Terrence Malick's memorial to what was once "a hidden life."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Franz Jagerstatter is probably not a name you know, thus the title of a new film about him, "A Hidden Life." The movie tells the story of the Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis and was executed for his resistance. It's the latest from director Terrence Malick, who's known for epic movies like "The Thin Red Line" and "Tree Of Life." NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports that, like those films, Malick's latest is about grand themes like love, faith and war.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Three years ago, a small film crew drove into the Alps. They needed to find a remote valley to serve as the setting for Terrence Malick's vision of paradise.

GRANT HILL: People got in their trucks, their bikes, their cars and drove into Austria.

QURESHI: The film's producer, Grant Hill, explains.

HILL: This combination of the mountain background, the faces on the people, the weather - I mean, it was otherworldly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HIDDEN LIFE")

QURESHI: "A Hidden Life" opens in the dark with the sound of nature. The screen then comes to life with images of mountain valleys, waterfalls, rivers flowing and clouds rolling.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HIDDEN LIFE")

QURESHI: Actor Valerie Pachner is one of the stars of the film.

VALERIE PACHNER: I come from Austria, and there is this incredibly beautiful landscape. But on the other hand, there's also a certain darkness to it. And I always feel like, you know, there's, like, these beautiful mountains, but then you have, like, those very dark forests. And then when you think about the Second World War, I feel like there's always sort of both in nature. And that's what I feel that Terry really captured so well.

QURESHI: Terrence Malick made the film with his cinematographer, Jorg Widmer.

JORG WIDMER: Nature, you have to capture when it happens, so you can't design it. It's just - when it's dusk, you have to be there and capture the dusk. If you have heavy weather coming up, then you should be at the right place just to capture the wind, to just capture the beauty of the clouds.

QURESHI: But the year is 1939, and that beauty is interrupted by the arrival of warplanes. "A Hidden Life" is based on the real life story of a farmer played by German actor August Diehl.

AUGUST DIEHL: His name is Franz Jagerstatter. And when the war broke out, he decided not to fight and to not swear an oath to Hitler and to not be part of the whole machinery of war. Then he sticks to this, and he sacrifices his whole family for this until the very end.

QURESHI: Franz Jagerstatter expressed his doubts in letters to his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HIDDEN LIFE")

DIEHL: (As Franz Jagerstatter) Oh, my wife, what's happened to our country, to the land we love?

QURESHI: His resistance became a crisis of his Catholic faith. And the village turned against him and his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HIDDEN LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You are a traitor.

QURESHI: "A Hidden Life" is filled with the spiritual questions that have defined Terrence Malick's cinema, says writer Eric Benson.

ERIC BENSON: I think it's concerned with these really kind of basic philosophical questions of what should a good man do in the face of evil? How do you navigate your loyalties to country and to God and to your own morality?

QURESHI: Two years ago, Eric Benson wrote an article about the elusive filmmaker for Texas Monthly magazine. Terrence Malick lives in Austin. He's 76 now and hasn't given any interviews in decades. Actor August Diehl says Malick's silence is his choice.

DIEHL: All this energy that he puts into the movies, probably if he would show up and talk about all this, we wouldn't have probably this kind of nice movies from him. The silence in the public is saving energy for a language which really matters.

QURESHI: That film language often includes voice-overs, swirling images and widescreen landscapes. But it's not for everyone, says Eric Benson.

BENSON: A Terrence Malick movie is almost like if you were to shoot a normal movie and then you were to take that footage and almost make an artistic collage out of it, kill the dialogue, you know, and have the images, instead of being tied together by a pretty conventional story, be tied together by sort of mood and ideas and images. So, you know, it's almost like watching a movie and then having a dream about that movie. The Malick movie is that dream you have that night.

QURESHI: Despite having that signature dreamy style, many critics have called "A Hidden Life" Terrence Malick's most direct film. German actor August Diehl says the movie offers an antidote to our current political culture.

DIEHL: I have the feeling that we live in a world which is getting louder and louder. And so it is very, very hard to find, like, a silent place in ourselves where we can still see which is right and which is wrong. Therefore, I think that our movies are relevant right now. It's not only politics. It's, in a very simple way, a silent resistance of somebody who is hidden. Like, we all are actually hidden lives. Everybody lives a hidden life.

QURESHI: Actor Valerie Pachner says if the film insists on a political position, it is Franz and Fani Jagerstatter's message of kindness and turning the other cheek.

PACHNER: It always sounds cheesy when I say it, but I just feel it's true is that this tendency of, you know, hatred and of being against each other - the only thing that really can oppose that is love in any sense and a sense of, like, being kind to your neighbors even though they're yelling at you; being kind to nature; because this is what makes us human beings, I think.

QURESHI: Franz Jagerstatter was executed at the age of 36 on August 9, 1943. His letters are now on screen in Terrence Malick's memorial to what was once a hidden life. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.