Auteur director Terrence Malick commemorates the life of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter who, when called up for his second round of military service during the Second World War, refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler.
The film is a meditative hymn to commemorate Franz and the life he has with his wife, Franziska, and their young children on their farm in a stunning mountainous valley; a world away from the brutalities of the Nazi war machine.
The beauty of this film is singular (to call it spectacularly shot would be an understatement) but its beauty does not provide the narrative tension required to carry a film of its length.
You spend a lot of time with our protagonists in the first half of the film as they work their land: harvest, sow, walk animals and grind their grain. Malick is clearly fascinated with their labour; the relationship between the farmers and the world they toil on.
This closed and idyllic world seems only to extend to the valley where they live and perhaps stretch to the small village close to where the farm is located. The length of the camera shots forces the audience to meditate (something that Malick has been asking of his audiences his whole career, from Badlands to The Tree of Life) in a specific moment in space and time, for example in the repetitive swing of a sickle or fingers rooting through the dirt or in loaded glances.
These are the strongest parts of the film, in fact, they completely root you in the moment. The commitment to sensuality is strengthened by the performances of August Diehl and Valerie Pachner as our farmers. Their relationship is very moving; the screenplay is spare in dialogue but their natural way of relating to each other physically speaks volumes.
While we are being grounded in the timeless rhythms of a life that farmers and peasants have been living for hundreds of years, the horrors of Nazi expansion which are about to encroach on that life are brought to the audience’s mind via snippets of original footage of Nazi rallies. The contrast is obvious to the senses; the brutal machinations of war and politics being alien to the flow of agricultural and family life.
When the protagonists are in settings like prison, training yards, offices, their obvious physical and spiritual discomfort makes them seem like they’re visiting an alien planet. The contrast is less obvious politically as Franz, our conscientious objector, never seems to gain a political identity.
The film relies on photography, body language and music and rejects dialogue with any tension. The only antagonist that we get to know is the town’s Mayor, played comically by Karl Markovics, but his ignorance and loutishness only serves to provide the contrast for Franz’s brooding. There is no tension between the characters; the director chooses only to focus on the agony of Franz via close shots of him listening and looking troubled.
The wider politics are only hinted at with short snippets of conversations where Hitler is referred to as the “anti-christ” “plundering villages” and so on; the horrors of the war and the Holocaust live in the consciousness of the audience but are never made explicit in the film.
As the film fails to build any narrative interest it is seriously overlong; at 170 minutes you could easily lose over an hour without losing any plot points. The characters never change or develop in any real way; they are simply a tragic collateral as their “hidden life” is upended. The good will that’s generated in the ecstatic and sensual beauty of the first half wears very thin towards the end.
It would have been interesting to see or hear any of the ripples that Franz’s sacrifice had on anyone he came into contact with during his imprisonment and trial, but Malick is only interested in the inner life of the protagonists and not the larger picture — what effects the actions had on the rest of the world.