Tropic Sprockets / A Hidden Life

By Ian Brockway

Auteur Terrence Malick is invariably a master of poetic imagery. In “A Hidden Life” he tells the life story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who rejected the Nazi war effort openly. Malick’s virtuosity is used to great effect.

First, Malick shows footage of Hitler saluting huge crowds. The images are cropped making these ink blots of horror a microscopic, eerie and disturbingly intimate feeling. Later we see Hitler in color relaxing in an upholstered living room chair.

Scarily, these pictures could almost be taken from today. This is only the prologue.

Franz (August Diehl) is a conscientious farmer in Austria 1939, contentedly living with his wife (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters.

Franz enlists for basic training and after his duties are fulfilled he returns to rural work, a responsibility he loves.

One day, a couple of Nazis come to the farm seeking donations. Franz refuses.

The townspeople ignore him. Franz is harassed by the mayor (Karl Markovics) who is frequently driven to drunken fervor by the Nazis.

Though at first indecisive and attempting to enlist, Franz ultimately rejects the regime during a military lineup to swear allegiance to Hitler, and is arrested.

Franz modestly cares for the land as a kind of Thoreau. The rushing of a stream is paired with the rush of warplanes: we observe the push and pull of man-made murder and the neutrality of nature, resolute and impartial. Malick’s camera flies to dizzying heights only to plummet to the earth, capturing all of the textures of hay and dirt. At times, these scenes are abstracted almost becoming an interpretation of the painter Anselm Kiefer. The officers themselves frequently spit and grimace as in a panoramic work by George Grosz.

The film is also a meditation on suffering. The walls close in and a guard’s boot collides with Franz’s face. He is beaten and tortured. Franz holds his face to the sky, an Austrian Jesus.

There are glimpses of the executioner’s plot. It resembles a stage in a theater behind a curtain and beware of the man, fat and corpulent in the tall hat.

Nature carries on in its green passivity, unheeding the rush of tanks, the mashing of rich soil under fascist feet.

Malick is more pointed here and there is less theatrical flourish. He delivers only the necessary textures and colors, the gray of guns and the black of death against the life giving greens of the natural world, tended by a man Franz Jägerstätter who became a saint through his nonviolent action.

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