When the swirling war epic The Thin Red Line appeared in 1998, film buffs treated it as a second coming. Malick was back! The New World (2005) was followed by The Tree of Life (2011), an evocation of the director’s own childhood that won the Palme D’Or in Cannes, after which he tried to confront modernity in a string of films that almost nobody liked. To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, all of which had next to no narrative, recycled the soaring camera moves, whispering voice-overs and wordless scenes of girls whirling in sunshine that had seemed so beautiful back in the day. Now they just looked like a string of irritating tics.

But that isn’t true of his latest film, A Hidden Life, even though it is dreamily, romantically, unmistakably Malick, complete with whirling girls – and three hours of Malick at that. It is immediately clear, however, that what Malick’s lyricism required all along was the countervailing discipline of a story – and in A Hidden Life, he is wrestling with a great story.

Beginning in 1939, A Hidden Life follows real-life conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter, a young Austrian farmer who worked his fields, looked after his herd of dairy cattle and raised his small daughters with his wife Fani in a hillside village called St Radegund that, captured by Jorg Widmer’s restless camera, looks gloriously remote from the Nazi poison.

Of course, it wasn’t. All able-bodied men were required to make themselves available for military service by signing an oath of loyalty to the Fuehrer. In 1943 – when he had already done a stint in the army, but not seen combat – Jagerstatter found he simply could not bring himself to sign it. Even if it meant his execution, Franz Jagerstatter was saying no.

“In a way, he is a hero,” says August Diehl, who plays Franz. “But you know, what is special about him is he is not doing anything. He is not like Edward Snowden or other people in the Third Reich who were hiding Jews or helping people escape. He is passive in this, but his passivity triggers something very, very strong.”

Valerie Pachner as Fani, who supports her husband's decision to challenge the Nazis.

Valerie Pachner as Fani, who supports her husband’s decision to challenge the Nazis.

Like most of the cast, Diehl is German but performs mostly in English, with a few smatterings of Austrian-German asides. In any other film, that linguistic pretence would feel clunkily performative. “At the beginning, I asked myself about this,” Diehl says. “Normally I would not like it, but when I see the movie now, it feels normal. I don’t even want to dub it.”

Fani is played by Valerie Pachner; many notable actors from the European cinema, such as Franz Rogowski, Matthias Schoenaerts and the late, very great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz appear in smaller but powerful roles.

Shooting with Malick, the actors confirm, is unlike working on any other film. There was a script, but Pachner says she set hers aside after the first day’s shooting. “We would just jump into scenes without knowing what they were,” she says. “The call sheet would say something like, ‘Fani confronts Franz with his decision’, but we would just do whatever.” Malick would tell them they were “catching fish”: the telling moments that would reveal themselves in the editing suite.

There was no rehearsal, but they spent weeks beforehand learning how to use a scythe and milk cows by hand. That process continued once shooting began. “I remember driving to set thinking not so much about the scenes, but whether the hay would be dry that I cut three days ago and hoping the cattle were fine,” Diehl says. “We were working, working, working like peasants do and then Terry would say, ‘OK, this is this little moment when you doubt’, or, ‘This is a moment of love’. We did scenes over and over again but in different places, so a dialogue starts and then it’s another day and another costume but still the dialogue goes on – and it works!”

We would just jump into scenes without knowing what they were. The call sheet would say something like, ‘Fani confronts Franz with his decision’, but we would just do whatever.

Actor Valerie Pachner

The title comes from a quote from George Eliot, which appears as an end-title: “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.”

But nobody can prove that; it is an assertion everyone from Fani to Franz’s Nazi tormentors and the film itself continually call into question. When Franz is arrested, interrogated and brought to trial, he is told over and over again that he is sacrificing his family for nothing. That his little protest is futile, because nobody will ever know about it.

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl as Fani and Franz Jagerstatter.

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl as Fani and Franz Jagerstatter.

Clearly that is not true: Jagerstatter was canonised by Pope Benedict, who came from a part of Bavaria not far from St Radegund, in 2007. And now, of course, he is recognised by this film. The act, however, was a complicated and compromised heroism; he faced leaving his wife without a husband, his children fatherless, without a provider and scorned by their neighbours.

“The situation is one a lesser film would milk for easy feelings of moral superiority – it’s a nice farmer versus the Nazis, after all,” wrote a Variety critic. “But A Hidden Life isn’t interested in push-button morality … It uses its story as a springboard for questions meant to spark introspection in viewers.”

Jagerstatter is intransigent but torn; he knows he is doing harm to those he loves.

Reviews for A Hidden Life in Cannes ranged from appreciative to rapturous, but Malick’s triumphant return will still be divisive – not just because it is indulgently long or because his pastoral romanticism drives some urban viewers up the wall, but because Franz’s lonely resistance, supported by his soulmate Fani, is not part of any larger political struggle. For Malick, the question he faces is moral and personal, which is not going to stop Nazis in their tracks.

“But I think that is also something that their story tells us,” says Pachner. “That you don’t necessarily have to think about the big picture. What you do in your own life, what you think is right, that is enough. Thinking about what others will think is just distracting sometimes. And I think having this feeling of being connected with yourself – that comes from a silent place.”

A Hidden Life opens on January 30.

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