Terrence Malick's Latest Is 'A Hidden Life' Of World War II Resistance Director Terrence Malick is known for dream-like movies. His latest tells a more direct story: one of a family, and how it is affected by the father's decision not to swear allegiance to Hitler.
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In Austria's Alps, 'A Hidden Life' Of World War II Resistance

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

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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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