Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
A Hidden Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick; inspired by Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison. Translated with commentary by Robert A. Krieg; edited by Erna Putz.
Even the most casual moviegoer immediately recognizes a Terrence Malick film, even if the story eludes them.
Malick and his filmmaking team employ voiceover, gliding panoramic shots, jump-cut editing and loosely written, non-linear “screenplays,” among other innovative techniques. The result both inspires devotees convinced of his genius and confounds others left scratching their noggins.
The subject of his new, fact-inspired film, A Hidden Life, is Catholic Austrian peasant farmer Franz Jäggerstätter (played by August Diehl), and doing his tale justice requires a more intentional structuring of the story. A conscientious objector during World War II, Franz lived his life with faith and certitude. The film makes absolutely clear his devotion to wife and three daughters and his equal diligence paid to whatever farming task arises next.
The film proceeds linearly, as it is told from the perspective of the Austrians inhabiting the tiny farming village of St. Radegund. In a couple of crucial moments, the perspective narrows when the camera shows us the world through the first-person point of view of the protagonist. This lucid storytelling stands opposite the opaque and non-linear style of Malick’s The Tree of Life, in which a a family is observed, in my opinion, through the eyes of God, not bound by time or space.
Excerpts of a documentary of the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria opens the film. The square aspect ratio of the footage propagandizes the overt message of Nazi fascism. Subjects in the film pack into tightly rectangular, static rows as far as the camera can see. All Austrians, they seemingly lose their individuality by falling in line with the rest of their fellow German speakers, as part of one of world history’s most ferocious empires.
These disturbing images give way to the wide-screen aspect ratio framing of St. Radegund. The Jäggerstätter family and fellow villagers move freely throughout the picturesque Alps. The camera, too, with the assistance of a Steadicam, moves about the characters as an angel would. Whereas the documentary footage casts the Fatherland in literal black-and-white terms, here in the village, we see the full chromatic scale of the mountains and their unique inhabitants. The idyllic remoteness of the tranquil village ends with the sound of Luftwaffe airplanes buzzing overhead.
This inciting incident announces the escalation of stakes. Jäggerstätter reluctantly attends compulsory military training. The many voiceovers, a Malick staple, satisfy the best in this particular film, because of their organic motivation. Franz and his wife Fani (played by Valeri Pachner) exchange letters, updating each other about everyday events, and mutually encouraging each other as prosaic tasks become difficult with the two forcibly separated.
Fani reminds her husband of when they first met, when he was proudly riding his motorcycle to a town festival. His conscience awakens to the realization that fancy machinery won’t impress her; but hard work in the fields and openness to simple domestic life will.
Fani’s attractive faith continually activates Franz’s formation of conscience. A fully formed conscience doesn’t happen overnight -- thus, the purposely slow pacing of the three-hour film. The most brilliant adaptation choice to demonstrate each character’s level of conscience is the selection of language.
At first, I thought the switching between German and English to be arbitrary until I recalled reading extracts from his prison letters. I read them translated to English in 2019, meaning his saintly example has been promulgated in various languages beyond wartime Germany. Franz speaks in English throughout (even though he didn’t know a lick of it in real life), signifying he knows the Gospel message will survive beyond the "Thousand-Year Reich."
Characters convinced of the same message -- or at least those with some nascent formation of conscience, but who go along to get along -- converse in English with some snippets of German. Only those with erroneous consciences, who truly fell for Nazi lies hook, line and sinker, bark lines in German, often with raised voice and irrational tone, signifying they can’t think of a reality outside of the current Nazi monolith.
As praise continues to pour in for the film, most secular critics point to its timely message. Fair enough, I suppose. But any good Catholic knows a well-told tale lifted from the martyrology isn’t just for the saint’s time or even our time. A Hidden Life beautifully and boldly proclaims Blessed Franz Jäggerstätter for all time.
Incidentally, Fani Jäggerstätter died in 2013, just after celebrating her 100th birthday.
Image: Fox Searchlight
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