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Franz Jägerstätter’s life and death raise one question above all: why did he do it? Why did this Austrian farmer refuse to fight in Hitler’s army, and why did he stick doggedly to that decision even when told he would face the death penalty for doing so?
Jägerstätter’s martyrdom – he was declared Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI – has always resonated with religious believers, and Terrence Malick’s new biopic, A Hidden Life, has been most warmly received by Jägerstätter’s fellow Christians. For the Eastern Orthodox writer Rod Dreher, it is “the best evocation of the Gospel ever committed to film”. It is, as Malick’s films tend to be, inventively told and achingly beautiful. But the big question goes unanswered.
August - Diehl - Performance - Franz - Doubt
That’s not to demean August Diehl’s performance. His Franz is, no doubt, what Malick wanted to portray: a quiet hero, with the emphasis on “quiet”. While we see Franz as a loving husband and father, and a faithful friend, he is also a reserved man, easily reduced to silence. When the Nazis arrive in his village of Sankt Radegund, Franz grows increasingly pensive. Asked to make a small donation to the war effort, he blurts out that he won’t, then walks away looking anguished. After being conscripted and refusing to serve, he faces a series of interrogations in which he never quite explains his position. We contemplate his haunted face and see in it, perhaps, the suffering Christ. Yet his actual thoughts remain mostly mysterious.
Curiously enough, this Franz resembles the protagonists of Malick’s previous films: troubled, introspective, ill-at-ease in a world which provides no answers to the questions that burden him. But the real Franz, well portrayed in Erna Putz’s biography, was rather different. Until his late 20s, he was one of Sankt Radegund’s more laddish characters: the first villager to own...
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