Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Hidden Life

Franz Jägerstätter on his motorcycle as a young man

Franz Jägerstätter and Franziska Schwaninger on their wedding day in 1936

Franz Jägerstätter in the military uniform he hated

A HIDDEN LIFE          B                
USA  Germany  (173 mi)  2019  ‘Scope  d:  Terrence Malick

…For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot, the pen name for Mary Anne Evans,1872

At heart, a simple love story, set in the majestic mountainous region of St. Radegund, Austria (50 km north of Salzburg), not far from the German border, with the breathtaking beauty of the Bavarian Alps looming in the distance, though actually shot closer to Italy in Seis am Schlern.  Winner of the François Chalais Award at Cannes which recognizes the value of journalism, this is the first Malick film since THE THIN RED LINE (1998) to be shot by someone other than Emmanuel Lubezki, choosing to use his longtime Steadicam operator Jörg Widmer as the cinematographer in Malick’s first all-digital film, where the natural world imposes its constant presence throughout, offering a glimpse of the eternal for the surrounding farmlands set in isolated rural areas, where the ominous presence of Hitler and the Third Reich elevates the moral quandary for one farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), as Franz is a deeply devout Catholic who is largely disturbed by the evils inherent with the Nazi’s, invading other countries, preying on the weak, killing innocent people, refusing to take the Hitler oath of allegiance required of all conscripted soldiers, becoming ostracized by the Church and community, viewed as a traitor, even remembered that way for decades afterwards, where the film examines his role as a social outsider and the accompanying small-town persecution that leads to prison, eventually tried in Berlin, where his moral choice to defy evil is simply not tolerated by the Nazi regime, instead condemning him to death at the age of 36, an act of courage in a largely unremembered act of defiance.  In its religious context, the film is a mirror image of Scorsese’s Silence (2016), which painfully examines the persecution of those first missionaries bringing Catholicism to 16th century Japan, where the treatment of outsiders in both cases is nearly identical, leading to a hellish existence in prison before being sadistically put to death, crucified in Japan, guillotined in Germany.  Jägerstätter’s fate was revealed by American sociologist and Catholic pacifist Gordon Zahn in his 1964 biography In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter, while Thomas Merton devoted a chapter to Jägerstätter in his 1968 book Faith and Violence, both struck that a person of such humble origins would commit such an overtly rebellious act, never belonging to any political organization, leading to a crisis of faith for one man alone, resembling the wider known Joan Of Arc story, leading to the nullification of his sentence in 1997, while he was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.  There is a documentary film on the subject entitled FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER: A MAN OF CONSCIENCE (2009), while the film itself was inspired by Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, edited in 2009 by Jägerstätter biographer Erna Putz, demonstrating how a single act of moral courage has powerful ramifications.  It should be noted that Jägerstätter was emboldened by the actions of Austrian priest Franz Reinisch who similarly refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and was executed a year earlier, and also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident who was sent to concentration camps (briefly overlapping with Jägerstätter’s imprisonment) and hanged near the end of the war. 

While the story is compelling, made all the more dramatic by the splendor of the natural world, revealed as the essence of simplicity, farmers struggling to survive, working together in harmony, reminiscent of the spellbinding beauty of Dovzhenko’s EARTH (1930), creating an idyllic portrait of collectivization, men and women, where all are viewed on equal footing, opening with the sacred music of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, Bach Matthäuspassion - Thomanerchor "Kommt ... - YouTube (7:36), which follows Christ’s journey to the cross, foreshadowing what’s to come.  Equally as enthralling as the lush, visual power is James Newton Howard’s magical score, A HIDDEN LIFE (2019) SOUNDTRACK || 01. A Hidden Life. YouTube (2:50), which draws viewers into the interior realm, becoming a recurring leitmotif for the love story between Franz and Fani, happily married with three small girls running freely across the landscape, living a kind of idyllic Edenesque existence in the rural valleys of an elevated Alpine region, where hard work is synonymous with cultural pride, with neighbors routinely lending a helpful hand, offering greetings whenever they pass on the road.  Franz confesses, “I thought that we could build our nest high up in the trees — fly away like birds,” with Fani answering, “How simple life was then … it seemed no trouble could reach our valley.  We lived high above the clouds.”  Yet there is ominous opening archival footage of Hitler in front of teeming throngs from Leni Riefenstahl’s epic propaganda film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935), alerting viewers to the coming storm, revealing a paradise lost, where this film shows no war footage, no tanks, no bullets, no blood, no sign of Jews, no Holocaust camps, only the ravings of fanatics and Nazi prison guards (screaming in German which Malick chooses not to subtitle), with repeated views of enlarged swastikas decorating courtrooms or emblazoned on Nazi uniforms.  Everything is toned down, emblematic of the hardscrabble life in this particular rural village, while the natural world in all its glory frames every perfectly composed shot.  It’s an assault to the senses and a visual treat, where especially powerful are the opening and closing 30-minutes, using voiceovers to ask ponderous questions, offering internalized philosophical musings throughout the film which have become a staple of Malick films since THE THIN RED LINE (1998).  Stylistically, the overall beauty is utterly sensational and sublime, but these continuous voiceovers are growing repetitive, even when elevated to conversations with God, as viewers have spent hours listening to this kind of thing before, pondering the spiritual realms, so when asked to do it once again it grows endlessly tiresome, particularly in this overlong format, the longest film in Malick’s career, where it’s becoming clearer over time that Malick needs a different editing style, spending three years painstakingly editing this film, but it feels bloated, overstuffed, and excessive, unable to excise extraneous material, falling in love with every shot.  While it’s easy to be raptured by the grandiosity, it’s harder still for this director to let go of anything, structurally creating museum pieces of unearthly beauty, but lacking the earthly passion to go along with it.    

In reviewing Malick’s voiceover style, it worked when it was introduced in THE THIN RED LINE (1998), with the director reimagining the American Army’s landing on Guadalcanal in 1942, with the title describing a psychological madness that envelops in the midst of a battlefield onslaught, witnessing wave after wave of human slaughter, filled with a steady stream of voices, as if speaking from the dead, paying reverent homage to all who have crossed that mysterious line in a cinematic requiem for the wounded and the dead, revealing an elegiac sorrow, a haunting, eternal sadness from the endless stream of voices silenced through time immemorial.  It works again magnificently in 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life largely because of its epic and ambitious scale, a film that asks the existential question, “Where do I come from?”  Filled with philosophical inquiries ruminating on the meaning of life, the perpetual search for meaning adds a deeply probing curiosity about our very existence, where the film becomes a ponderous inquiry into how it all began, expressed through tiny moments in people’s lives, by their collective memories which bond them together as families, something they uniquely share with one another, filling the screen with ordinary moments, as Malick examines the essential nature of love.  If we add this film to those earlier two, it is the weakest effort, as it is biblically inspired and the most explicitly religious, and the seventh film in a row using a continuous stream of voiceovers, which makes it harder to identify with, as we’ve repeatedly experienced this style before and it comes during a serious decline of religious affiliation, with fewer people defined by their faith, and even fewer that still attend church (How America Lost Its Religion - The Atlantic).  Arguably the sex abuse scandal among priests has played a prominent role in declining numbers, but fewer people overall feel a connection to the church.  So films that seriously examine the meaning of faith, like this one or Scorsese’s Silence, each one glorifying sadistic torment and personal suffering (with Jägerstätter a stand-in for Christ), where reveling in agony is a test of faith, many may be less than overwhelmed by the profundity of it all, where the historical connection certainly opens eyes, but the religious question may find fewer who share that devotional curiosity (Get ready, as Malick’s next project is a Jesus movie entitled The Last Planet).  Malick never mentions how the church changed their views towards Jägerstätter’s sentence 50 years after the fact.  Inspired by true stories, acts of heroism deserve our recognition, but it is not inconceivable that Jägerstätter might be equally condemned by society today for far less radical views, as xenophobia alone stirs the ranks of resentment, with neighbor turning against neighbor in the flick of an eye, where the recent Slovakian film by Marko Škop, Let There Be Light (Nech je Svetlo), does an excellent job exposing how current political atrocities and age-old bigotry are financed and promulgated by the church, especially in rural communities like the one depicted in the film.  By emphasizing one man’s noble struggle to affirm his faith amidst the chaos of war, however, Malick neglects the millions who were exterminated *because* of their faith.

Malick was a philosophy major at Harvard, graduating with honors and distinction, doing graduate work at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar but left after a disagreement with an advisor, where his first two films, BADLANDS (1973) and DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), remain his best, easily his most accessible, allowing a passage of twenty years before making another film, where his style changed dramatically, losing any narrative cohesion, exploring themes of nature, transcendence, and spirituality, using meditative voiceovers to ask deeply probing philosophical questions, having the effect of unanswered prayers.  Using his films as philosophical essays, questioning the existence of God or the meaning of existence, he’s developed a stream-of-conscious style in lieu of dialogue or character development, becoming more abstract, often losing any plot whatsoever, which loses much of the dramatic intensity of his earlier films.  While this returns to a linear narrative, Malick continues his practice of bringing actors back for additional voiceover recordings, literally shifting the film’s emphasis in the editing room, becoming something altogether different than what he initially envisioned, building a film around the exchange of letters between Franz and Fani.  Offering truth to power, the film emphasizes their humble origins, never resorting to long rhetorical speeches, which there is a major contrast between the animated Nazi vitriol and the more detached and impassive manner of Franz, who never actually defends himself but simply identifies as a conscientious objector and refuses to serve in an unjust war, drawing a moral line of distinction, always emphasizing his free will, with others expressing their reactionary disdain.  The manner in which he and his family are treated by the local community is eye raising, as it’s in complete contrast to the harmony that existed before, examining the wrathful repercussions from his fellow villagers, the members of the Catholic community, including the local priest and bishop, as well as pressures within his own family, where questions are raised that simply have no answers, one of which is directed towards his community, especially when asked to protect the Fatherland, “Have they forgotten the face of the true Father?”  This gets at the heart of the picture, as Franz isn’t rebelling so much as following his conscience, living a God-fearing existence, where he answers first and foremost to God before any demands of the Führer, who comes across as a false prophet, a heretic, a leader of blasphemy.  Too much of the film is spent with Franz in prison (in stark contrast to the splendor of the natural world) while Fani endures the contempt and indifference of the community, where all movement or action ceases to exist, stuck in a fog or paralysis where time literally stops, losing all urgency and anything resembling dramatic suspense, with a predictable outcome that is deciphered in the opening half-hour (though his final moments are stark and harrowing), as there’s a reason this is set in Nazi Germany, a worst case scenario, the grandest delusion of the 20th century, where the smallest act reverberates with greater moral weight than the thunderous tanks and militarized blitzkriegs of a sadistically obsessed madman and his all-too-willing followers.