Terrence Malick’s lyrical, haunting film “A Hidden Life” is a rarity for him: a relatively straightforward narrative based on a true story. Its title is inspired by a George Eliot quote, about the meaningful lives lived by people history doesn’t remember: “ … 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 the unvisited tombs.”
One such life is that of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), an Austrian peasant farmer who lived in an idyllic mountain village with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), and three young daughters at the start of World War II. Called to fight for the Nazis, he refused to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler and was imprisoned, facing execution for treason. Meanwhile, Fani stayed home to toil on the farm, facing derision from the villagers. The couple wrote impassioned letters to each other, which Malick used as material for the screenplay.
You can imagine how other filmmakers might approach this — it’s a beautifully cinematic story — but no one else would film it quite as Malick has. This quiet, meditative and very deliberate film (nearly three hours long, though not a great deal happens) is at once historical drama, love story and ode to nature. Cinematographer Joerg Widmer immerses us in the lush, insistent green of those Austrian hillsides, letting the landscape wrap around the characters. (Yes, this is a movie you really should see on the big screen; it’ll make more sense that way.) In the early scenes, you see how this setting is a haven for the Jägerstätters — living above the clouds, “it seemed no trouble could reach our valley,” says Fani in voice-over. Later, the contrast between home and the sickly grayish-yellow of a prison cell’s walls becomes marked; Franz, ashen and cold, can only dream of sunshine.
Malick shows us, lovingly, the rhythm of life on the farm: the weaving machines, the plowing, the sowing, the herding of animals, the fetching of water, the making of bread, the sun and the rain and the snow. The three little girls growing up there seem part of that landscape, happily wandering in and around all of this; in one achingly beautiful scene, they jump and laugh in a hayloft, seeming to be landing on the softest of green pillows.
“A Hidden Life” takes its time to let us savor the things that Franz loved and lost, the beauty that returns every year. Fresh green grass, he writes in a letter, is good for a person. “Someone with freedom might not notice it.”
★★★½ “A Hidden Life,” with August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. 173 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including violent images. Opens Dec. 20 at Cinemark Lincoln Square, SIFF Cinema Egyptian and Grand Cinema; and Dec. 24 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.