Integrity on Trial
Review by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, 2019) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In this yet-another-“based on true events” entry in the 2019 cinema catalogue we follow the life for a few years during WW II of an Austrian farmer who lives a simple, happy life with his wife and 3 daughters in a small mountain village, tending to his daily chores (including helping out at the local Catholic church where he’s a devoted member), getting on well with his neighbors, enjoying the laughter that comes from a loving family (enhanced by the addition of his sister-in-law and his elderly mother, with neither seen as a burden despite the small home, limited resources). Sadly, this all changes in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexes Austria (implied by opening old b&w, boxy-format footage of Adolph Hitler), putting this man’s family under the rule of a regime he has no agreement with but largely leaves him alone until he’s called into active duty in 1943, leading to immediate trouble when he refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, morally objecting to the ferocious war these brainwashed Germans are waging across most of Europe, a resistance stance not supported by even his wife and his mother (they change later). What happens during the rest of this 174 min. quiet epic (alternating majestic shots of the mountainous landscape with jump-cutting within scenes indicating the emotional instability of events, along with a few scenes spoken in German [no translation] as opposed to most of the dialogue being in English, seemingly to remind us what’s really going on in this narrative when it’s not being tailored to the likely-monolingual-audiences intended as primary patrons) easily gets us into spoiler territory so I’ll refrain from further details here, leaving it to your preferences if you’d rather see the film before reading all my specifics below (not easy to do, though, as it’s playing in a very limited number of theaters, probably won’t expand much further unless it picks up some momentum with soon-to-be-announced-Oscar-nominations), although you can easily learn all you need to know with an Internet search about Franz Jägerstätter (one such link’s in the text below), with a hint from me this man’s highly respected by the Catholic Church because in June 2007 he was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI (more about him in The Two Popes [Fernando Meirelles, 2019; review in our January 2, 2020 posting]), then on October 26 of that year he was beatified (recognized by the Church as being in the state of perpetual grace, leading to canonization when the deceased is acknowledged as a saint after specific miracles are attributed to him or her).
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: While our story begins in 1939 it’s crucial we understand how events of 1938—Austria’s forced annexation by Nazi Germany—determine what we’ll witness in this film, where a simple, well-liked farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), lives a happy, productive life with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), eventually joined by 3 daughters—Rosi (Ida Mutschlechner), Maridi (Maria Weger), Loisi (Aennie Lade)—along with his sister-in-law, Resie (Maria Simon)—abandoned by her husband, rather bitter toward most men—and his elderly mother, Rosalia (Karin Neuhäuser). Franz doesn’t care for Hitler’s ideology but merely keeps his feelings to himself, even accepting being brought up for military training although he doesn’t have to serve in the active army because he’s excused for the needed farming duties with his family. All of that changes in 1943, though, when he’s called to active duty for which he reports but causes an immediate problem by refusing to take the required oath of loyalty to Hitler (based on his religious convictions and a decision the German warfare across Europe is immoral, he wants no part of it; his local priest, Father Ferdinand Füthauer [Tobias Moretti], sympathizes with Franz’s sincere position but dares not support his cause, instead sends him to the Bishop of Salzburg, Joseph Fliesser [Michael Nyqvist] who claims Franz has a Biblical obligation to support his fatherland). Arrested, treated harshly by the Enns jail guards, rejected by all (except his family, but back home they’re also seen as outcasts, some of the hostility coming from pragmatic attitudes such as by the village’s Mayor Kraus [Karl Markovics] who simply doesn’t want to be accountable for a local’s disobedience to the unyielding authority of the German occupiers, some coming from other locals who welcomed their new Nazi overlords as consistent with their beliefs in a common Teutonic heritage). Franz and Fani keep up regular correspondence (delivered to us via voiceover), strengthening their mutual love and devotion even as the women on the farm work as hard as possible to keep the place functionally-solvent, despite the distain they face from most of their neighbors. After Franz has been sent to a military prison in Berlin, Fani’s finally able to secure permission to visit him, accompanied by Father Ferdinand. ⇒By this point in 1943, the Nazi army’s given up on gaining compliance from Franz, even offering him a non-combat medical role which he rejects. During Fani’s visit (where they’re only allowed touching by holding hands across a small table) it’s become clear Franz will be executed which she tearfully accepts, in support of his firm convictions (the priest tries to persuade him to sign the oath document just to save his life even though he wouldn’t believe in what he was signing; his captors continue to badger him with the argument that hardly anyone even knows about his incarceration so his refusal to cooperate is giving no inspiration to anyone else). On August 9, 1943 he and other prisoners are executed by guillotine (Malick’s tasteful enough to not depict those actual deaths).⇐
So What? I’ve been a fan of Malick’s work, in its consistently intriguing (if not subversive at times) content, exquisite cinematography, and poetic sense giving him an almost unique presence in contemporary cinema (other poets are also part of the modern cinema landscape, especially Pedro Almodovar for my tastes, now that such artists as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Federico Fellini have gone on to the Great Beyond, whatever it may be) which captivated me with his early, more-plot-driven-narratives such as Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), then confirmed him in my cache of great contemporary directors with his (likely-obscure for a lot of viewers yet mesmerizing for me) almost-anti-narrative works in this century, The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2013; review in our May 3, 2013 posting [sloppy layout and all]), Knight of Cups (2016; review in our March 24, 2016 posting)—although I must admit while I appreciated the artistry of The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), they didn’t “Wow!” me quite as much as others just cited, so I’m not among the chorus of critics who constantly cite those last 2 titles as the defining aspects of his accomplishments. Certainly, A Hidden Life (the title inspired by the final on-screen-graphics just prior to the end credits, a quote from George Elliot about how all our lives are enriched by the many who’ve done great things, made the world better for us to live in yet aren’t recognized by name or deed to most, just as Franz Jägerstätter’s honor-driven-sacrifice was likely unknown to the vast majority of us until it became celebrated in this fascinating, breathtaking film (just as his Nazi persecutors kept insisting his “noble” [not in their twisted minds, of course, so they tried to throw it back at him as a counter-agrument] stance would remain unheard of, uninspiring to others who might likewise consider resistance to the iron will of Der Führer), a lot more plot-driven than other recent Malick works as we follow Franz’s bitter journey from unremarkable farmer to assumed enemy of the state for his attempted conscientious objection to the unjust war (as he saw it, despite the pragmatic—if not ideological—acceptance by so many former friends/neighbors), but that more-linear-narrative-skeleton Malick's employing doesn’t prevent us from being immersed in the totality of each well-structured-scene (even if that structure results from carefully-realized-editing, given the improvisational freedom Malick gives his actors [see the 2nd item in the Related Links segment of this posting connected to this film, much farther below, for more details]) which to me imparts a sense of fullness to an event—no matter how minor—even if other viewers might witness such elaboration/exploration as unnecessary repetition (e.g. the San Francisco Chronicle’s film critic, Mick LaSalle, arguing for Malick to cut this film by about 44 min. to streamline it of such—as he sees it—revisitation of already-established-aspects). For me, A Hidden Life functions marvelously as is, a deliberate, mesmerizing, impactful meditation on life in all of its vast difficulties.
Bottom Line Final Comments: Within Two Guys’ Related Links you’ll also find for the next couple of months options of Metacritics’ reviewers-surveys of 2019's most nominated/ awarded releases and a compilation of film critics' Top 10 lists where you’ll see no mention of A Hidden Life in the former, a poor showing (#23 of 30) in the latter, so little attention’s being paid to this sublime masterwork. You’d also have heard nothing about it at the recent Golden Globes broadcast where it received no nominations—although a declining number of viewers seem to have not heard of the Globes either, as this summary explores its ratings decline since 2016 (along with the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys), but maybe the Oscars will provide some relief, at least for cinematography (gorgeous images of Alpine countryside, exteriors shot in the South Tyrol region of northern Italy [bordering on Austria]). CCAL support’s strong with 83% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a hefty (for them) 79% average score at Metacritic (more details on both in Related Links), although audiences haven’t had a lot of opportunity yet as after almost a month in release coverage has grown to only 151 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters, yielding a mere $1.3 million in receipts (global total $2.6 million). Seeming disinterest in A Hidden Life (maybe Malick’s oft-cited-reputation as inscrutable, given his most recent work, didn’t help; maybe the subject matter’s too depressing for a Christmas-season option or not dramatic enough for its Nazi-era setting) flies against this exploration of reality-based films gaining Oscar-enthusiasm in recent years (1927-1999 only 14 fact-based-stories won Best Picture [19%] while 33% have done so since 2000), even with complaints about twists on historical accuracy (but, the article points out, Shakespeare based plays on history, then rewrote as needed for dramatic purposes: “A fact-based film doesn’t have to be factually correct, but it has to be emotionally honest.”), yet in reading biographies such as this one of Jägerstätter the only contradiction I find in Malick’s film is the Germans offering Franz the opportunity to serve in a non-combat-role while, as a conscientious objector, he was the one to suggest such only to be denied. All I can say further is A Hidden Life's a subtly-powerful-celebration of the best motivations in human nature, explored in a full-bodied-manner that may not overwhelm you with the horrors of the Third Reich as in more dramatic visions like Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1994) or find creative ways to undermine the Nazi cause as with Jojo Rabbit’s (Taika Waititii; review in our November 13, 2019 posting) satirical approach, but what Malick’s done here has to be ranked with his other cinematic successes as the singular project of a filmic visionary willing to slowly, effectively, powerfully immerse us in the tortured dignity of a man choosing a firm faith in God as more important than national pride, familial duties, or even his own valued existence.
Franz stands up to tyranny when all turn against him, maybe because they despised the lack of such conviction in themselves, choosing to take the low road of self-preservation (not that I wouldn’t do so, as dying for a good cause is a noble ideal but, I’d imagine, difficult to accomplish when escape hangs on a hypocritical signature on a document you disrespect; being able to rise above such fears, though, is how Franz maintained self-respect, no matter the bitter price). There are few films I’d recommend more highly than A Hidden Life, although until some video option’s available you’ll likely have a hard time finding it. I had an equally hard time choosing an appropriate Musical Metaphor for my usual strategy of closing the review because nothing I thought of truly reflected the sincere stance this brave man took against a corrupted culture. (I considered The Animals’ "It's My Life"—“It’s a hard world to get a break in All the good things have been taken […] It’s my life and I’ll do what I want It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want”—but the overall aggression of the song as the vocalist shows his anger, his determination to be richer, more independent, possibly like those he now despises* encouraged me to find something else.) However, what I ultimately chose I can’t fully share with you due to unavailability of the clip I’d ideally use (matching the ideals of Jägerstätter) from the movie version of Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967), the entire final scene where King Arthur’s (Richard Harris) about to go into battle against forces led by Lancelot, but first grants knighthood to young Tom (Gary Marsh), not for this boy to fight (Arthur’s concerned they both might die) but instead to go back home, keeping alive memories of the great hopes embodied by the Knights of the Round Table as Harris sings the title song in reprise. I’m able to give you a short bit of that at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lhduy0Em74 (dark visuals, sorry), but to enhance the impact of my intentions I’ll have to connect it to an earlier scene with no music, just Arthur’s initial thoughts on revenge for the deceit brought about by the affair between Queen Guinevere and noble-knight-Lancelot, then embracing a more-uplifting-stance because such “compassion is not weakness […] and may God have mercy on us all.” Franz Jägerstätter also demonstrated such a saintly position (more crucially, given he’s an historical figure, not a fictional hero), staying true to his religious principles even when there was no secular upside to his decision.
*I often use a link close to when a song first came out (this single’s on the 1966 album The Best of the Animals) and there’s a 1965 YouTube video you can watch, especially because except for singer Eric Burdon the personnel changes completely by the time of this 2011 live performance, but the odd staging of that earlier one (a woman’s head mounted on the wall like a trophy; she’s alive, though) is just too distracting from the tone of A Hidden Life to even include it as a rejected choice.
In that I took a different tack (as sailors say when changing direction, not “tact” as some mistakenly use with this phrase but that describes an attitude I rarely exhibit in these reviews anyway) with my Musical Metaphor choice this time, I’ll also try something offbeat in the Short Takes section, just offering a collection of possibly-interesting-tidbits rather than brief (well, sometimes I’ve been able to be brief) comments on another film or 2. I’ll begin by noting that while various logistics kept me from seeing more than 1 new release last week I was able to catch up on a couple of musician-based-documentaries I’d missed during their theatrical runs last year, Pavarotti (Ron Howard, 2019) about the late, great Italian opera tenor, and Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, 2019), the queen of a lot of pop music styles of the later 20th century with the former doc on Showtime, the latter on CNN if you’d like to try to find them yourself via some version of On Demand. Both are excellent biographies of their fabulously-talented-subjects (generally respected by the CCAL also, despite Metacritic’s typically less-enthusiastic-responses: Pavarotti RT 86% positive reviews, MC 66% average score; Linda Ronstadt … RT 88%, MC 77%), but I won’t assign any stars as I don’t want to get into fabricating reviews of something I watched just for pleasure without any thought of taking notes for further consideration/exploration. Something I didn’t even consider watching, though, is the long-awaited (I suppose) cinematic-adaptation (Tom Hooper, 2019) of the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit Broadway musical, Cats. When my theatre-loving-wife, Nina, and I saw it in San Francisco on stage years ago I was appalled by how uninterested I was in what had been so critically/audience-praised (and I’m a cat lover, with my 13-year-old-Inky asleep in my lap as I type this)—if they’d sung “Memory” one more time I might have walked out despite the high cost of tickets (even for the upper balcony), so it would have taken enormously-positive reviews to pull me in, despite my respect for the marvelous cast. That didn’t happen as the RT number was merely 21%, MC a surprisingly-higher 32%; other potential-audience-attendees haven’t been intrigued much either, with this video exploring why it tanked, this article noting how its combined production/marketing costs of about $200 million might easily fall short by $100 million at the box-office. On a more positive note for another film I wasn’t so impressed by (but at least saw it, had some good things to say about it in my previous posting's review), here’s another song of praise for Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019), along with statistics on how the 2019 top-grossing 100 domestic releases featured a record number of female protagonists (40% overall: 45% in studio features, 55% in independents, based on 2,300 characters; also, 20% of the 2019 features employed women as directors, writers, producers, editors, and/or cinematographers).
Finally, neither Cats nor Little Women earned a mention (justifiably so for me) on Variety’s 9 most underrated 2019 movies (a few I haven’t seen, others I have but didn’t hit me as being all that great) nor their 10 most overrated of the decade (here I have disagreements as their #1, The Master [Thomas Paul Anderson, 2012; review in our September 27, 2012 posting] is among my Top 10 of the [almost] previous decade [I don’t close it out until after we finish 2020]—with stunning performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams—while their #9, Inception [Christopher Nolan, 2010] I thoroughly enjoyed as masterful plotting about descents into the subconscious; for that matter, although I made some mention of Variety's Top 10 of the decade in my last posting, I’ll note here I have no overlap with Owen Gleiberman’s choices, agree only with Peter Debruge’s #9, 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013; review in our November 14, 2013 posting]—see the Summary of Two Guys Reviews for my best of 2011-’19 original releases in the 4½ and 5 stars groups, final order to come after 2020). OK, enough scattershot-rambling; I’ll just close it all out with a non-Musical Metaphor, Paul Simon’s "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" (from his 1986 masterpiece Graceland) both because I just want to hear it again and we may all need some “way to lose these walking blues” depending on how this situation with Iran continues to unwind (hopefully, not much more on that later); assuming we’re not at war by then maybe I’ll see you again next week when I may have had a chance to see some of the other new releases I’d still like to catch up on before mulling over Oscar nominations: Bombshell (Jay Roach, 2019), 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019 [a somewhat-surprise-winner for Best Director, Best Motion Picture-Drama at the recent Golden Globes]), Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2019), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)—although from what I understand this last one may not go into wide release until after the Oscars awards on February 9, 2020 so my soon-to-be-determined 2019 Top 10 and Oscar preferences/predictions probably will leave that option out of consideration.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2019’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 9, 2020 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2019 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists. You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here )—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globes nominees and winners for films and TV from 2019.
Here’s more information about A Hidden Life:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDk_9kJIjMY (18:19 interview with actors August Diehl, Valerie Pachner); unfortunately, I couldn’t find any interview with director Terrence Malick talking about his latest film, but maybe this short video (4:52) on aspects of his recent work prior to A Hidden Life at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5f6rpDlfX5A might help give some insight into his themes, interests, unique stylistic approaches of this cinematic poet (despite release-date-discrepancies).
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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