Producers: Grant Hill, Dario Bergesio, Josh Jeter and Elisabeth Bentley   Director: Terrence Malick   Screenplay: Terrence Malick   Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhäuser, Michael Nyqvist, Martin Wuttke, Alexander Fehling, Franz Rogowski, Johannes Krisch and Ulrich Matthes  Distributor: Fox Searchlight Films

Grade:  B+

The story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer jailed and executed by the Nazi regime in 1943 for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler upon being called up to serve in the German army, might not seem typical fare for writer-director Terrence Malick, but though “A Hidden Life” is more straightforwardly told than his recent films, he nonetheless puts his own spin on the material.

The film certainly shows the fortitude it took for Jägerstätter to remain resolute in the face of hostility from most of his neighbors in St. Radegund, advice to compromise from authority figures in church and state, vacillation and incomprehension within his family, and uncertainty in his own mind, not to mention the brutality of prison guards and the denunciations of military judges; but Malick doesn’t turn him into a plaster saint, though he was in fact beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.  Nor does “A Hidden Life” attempt much insight into why he took the stance he did, suggesting it was rooted in his embrace of the most basic Christian values.  Instead, it represents an artistically-shaped rumination on the demands of a faith-based conscience, one that leaves a powerful impression and encourages viewers to assess their own attitudes.

August Diehl portrays Jägerstätter not as an intellectual, but a simple man whose pleasures reside in the love of his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their young daughters. His widowed mother (Karin Neuhäuser) and Fani’s sister (Maria Simon) live with them as well.  Franz and Fani spend most of their time in the fields, plowing the ground, harvesting the wheat with scythes alongside their neighbors and taking their share to the water-driven mill for grinding, and dealing with their animals.  But there is a good deal of time for shows of affection between them and playing with the children.

When Franz is called up for military training, he does his duty, making friends with another free-spirited draftee, Waldian (Franz Rogowski).  Returning home, he watches with quiet concern as most of the villagers, led by their voluble mayor (Karl Markovics), become more and more fanatical in their fascistic attitudes, while a few others justifiably fear what Nazi ideas will mean for them and their families.  Even as a trainee he had shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm when shown films of the army on the march, and now he demurs to offer the Hitler salute when other civilians do so.

By 1943 Jägerstätter was called up for active service and sought assistance about his developed anti-war convictions—the roots of which go largely unexamined by Malick.  Franz discusses his doubts about entering the army with the local parish priest, Father Fürthauer (Tobias Moretti), a sad-faced man who sympathizes to the extent of arranging an interview with the bishop (Michael Nyqvist), who counsels the same sort of caution the diocese practices.  (Franz later suggests to Fani that he thinks the prelate was concerned he might be a spy investigating his administration.)

Ultimately Franz reports for induction and is arrested when he refuses to take the Hitler oath.  Thrown into cells with other incarcerated men, he remarks in letters to his wife that they have suffered more than he, but the prison guards take sadistic pleasure in tormenting him.  There is some joy in his reconnection with Waldian, who is in the same boat, but he must resist suggestions from another prisoner that his religion is a fraud he should abandon, as well as recommendation to compromise from his slick defense lawyer (Matthias Schoenaerts).  He rejects that advice, and a military court sentences him to death although one of the judges (Bruno Ganz) is troubled enough to call him into his office for a private conversation before the verdict is announced.

Meanwhile Fani suffers continued ostracism by their neighbors, shielding her daughters from their vitriol as much as possible.  Even her mother-in-law is angry with her, thinking that Fani encouraged Franz in his views.  Incidents of kindness from the miller (Johannes Krisch) and an elderly woman who helps her collect her vegetables when her cart collapses, are rare instances of humaneness amid the treatment, which occurs even in the idyllic surroundings—a fact that Malick continues to emphasize with long, loving sequences of the countryside to contrast with the dreariness of the prison.

Inevitably the date of Franz’s execution arrives, and Fani travels to Berlin, accompanied by Father Fürthauer, to see him one last time—and urge him to reconsider his decision not to look for a way out.  He and other condemned men are transported to the gloomy compound where the men are taken to the chamber one-by-one, each given a tablet to write something on before dying.  Their demeanors differ as they are led off; Franz is stoic. 

Apart from a few moments of obvious depression, Franz is portrayed by Diehl as a person of extraordinary serenity to the end, and Pachner exhibits Fani’s resilience under the pressure put on her by her husband’s decision.  The rest of the cast make vivid, if often brief, impressions (Ganz, in a valedictory performance, exudes a world-weary recognition of how things are), and the craft contributions—by production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel and costumer Lily Christi—are impeccable. 

This is, however, a Malick film first and foremost, and together with cinematographer Jörg Widmer, editors Rehman Niza, Joe Gleason and Sebastian Jones and composer James Newton Howard, he creates a ruminative, poetic ambience in which the luxuriant countryside contrasts with the grimness of prison confinement. 

At its core, of course, “A Hidden Life” is about religious morality, or more precisely about how one man chose to follow the road to which his faith called him whatever the cost, while others either forgot what it taught, preferring contrary values, or decided to compromise their core beliefs for pragmatic reasons.  In it Malick raises fundamental issues about the choices believers make in times of difficulty in a more linear, narratively direct fashion that has been his norm of late: this film is far more approachable than his often obscure recent offerings, though its epic length, leisurely pacing and frequent recourse to the beauty of the natural world will irk some. 

While more accessible than Malick’s last few films, its rejection of haste and sentiment—and its insistence that viewers take religious belief as seriously as he does—will test the patience of many, probably most, viewers. But if you are willing to accept the challenge posed by Malick’s technique, you may find this cinematic poem on the mystery of faith a profoundly moving and illuminating experience.