Published Dec 09, 2019A Hidden Life is set in the Second World War, but it's about a much more private conflict than the one taking place in the trenches. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a farmer and family man living in a beautiful valley in the Austrian mountains, but while most of his neighbours are whipped up into frenzy of anti-immigrant nationalism, Franz declares Hitler "evil."
Franz makes no secret of his anti-Nazi stance, which inspires paranoia in the local Catholic Church and anger in some of the racist blowhards in his village. He, his devoted wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their young children become social pariahs, and their idyllic agrarian life becomes increasingly hostile and dangerous. Franz is eventually imprisoned, and much of the film plays out in a series of mournful letters between he and his wife.
It's gorgeously shot, with stunning mountain views and voyeuristic shots that get right up in actors' faces, as if the audience has snuck into the middle of a scene.
There's a very significant snag to all of this, though: A Hidden Life is almost three hours long, and nothing much happens that can't be summed up within just a few sentences. There are several speeches where someone tries to change Franz's political stance by reminding him that his objection won't change the course of history. This point is repeated several times, almost verbatim. There are numerous scenes where neighbours glower judgmentally at Franziska, and many more in which Franz is taunted or beaten by prison guards.
Franz was unquestionably a hero, but his characterization here is curiously flat. We spend three hours with a man whose sole personality traits are that he loves his wife, dislikes the Nazis and refuses to change his mind on either count. He barely articulates what inspires his brave stance, and he describes his objection to Hitler as a vague "feeling." There's minimal dialogue and nothing much to humanize him more deeply than a nebulous, stoic heroism.
A Hidden Life takes its title from a quote from George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, which celebrates the unsung heroism of those who are forgotten by history. That book runs upwards of 800 pages, depending on the edition, which is about how long A Hidden Life feels. (Searchlight)