We all want to be remembered — there’s no doubt about that. If we didn’t, fame wouldn’t be so coveted and patent lawyers would be out of a job. But when it comes to making history, few of us are ever able to achieve anything “noteworthy.” Or are we? Terrence Malick’s (“Song to Song”) newest film, “A Hidden Life,” challenges the idea that, in order to leave a mark on the world our actions have to be outstanding. Instead, it suggests that simply following through on our beliefs, even in the face of serious adversity, is enough to make an impact on the world.
The film explores this idea through the life of Franz (August Diehl, “Salt”), an Austrian farmer called up to fight for the Nazi regime. Though “A Hidden Life” provides a timely conversation about what it means to “make history,” the film lacks any intrigue beyond the typical violence of the Nazis.
“A Hidden Life” should not have been three hours long. The official runtime is 2.88 hours — 2.88 hours filled with Austrian mountainside, German prisons and little else. Though the contrast between a peaceful farming village and bare prison yards help create jarring transitions, the scenery adds nothing to the plot. The mood of the film was often affected by the cloud cover, but one can only stare at on-screen clouds for so long.
The film is eventually split between two viewpoints — that of Franz in the German prison after having refused his position as a soldier and that of his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner, “Bad Luck”). The couple’s letters, provided as voiceovers between scenes, narrate their feelings and longings as they grapple with Franz’s strained relationship with the Germans and Fani’s increasing loneliness. But even as they pour out their feelings, there is little to no emotional connection between the characters and the audience. Even though Fani bursts into tears while tilling the fields and the audience takes Franz’s point of view while being beaten by a Nazi, there is little passion. Instead of tearing up at the tragedies Franz and his family faced, most in the audience, myself included, just watched indifferently as these moments unfolded.
Eventually, this leads to a pair of one-dimensional characters whose only distinctive quality is their farm in Austria. There is little nuance to the film’s message — Franz is nothing more than a man dying for his cause. And maybe that’s exactly just who he was. The simplicity doesn’t take away from the nobility of his actions, but it does mean that his story should be saved for World War II documentaries watched in high school history classes.
The intent of the story is not the problem here. It’s still incredibly important to remind ourselves that our individual actions have consequences, no matter how small. Unsung heroes from wars should be remembered. But not at the expense of a plot. With further research, or even just a basic understanding of how Hollywood works, it becomes increasingly clear why Franz’s story was told: he is a man. God forbid we make movies about women during the war that aren’t an American Girl Doll story. It’s obvious that the Austrian farmer’s story should be told before the women who cracked key Nazi codes and helped win the war.
It is important to discuss men like Franz, the ones who quietly sacrificed their lives to stand up for their beliefs. We obviously can’t all be the next Greta Thurnberg or Gandhi. But that also doesn’t mean we have to devote a three-hour film and $7 million to $9 million, according to Wikipedia, to a story that could be told in a 15 minute segment in a Netflix documentary.