Visionary writer-director Terrence Malick masterfully shines the spotlight on humanity with A Hidden Life.
It is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant farmer born and raised in the village of St. Radegund, who refused to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler during World War II, sacrificing everything, including his life, rather than to fight for the Nazis.
NOTE: If you want to experience this unforgettable film at its best, watch it without knowing too much about the story and avoid spoilers. You won’t regret it.
A Hidden Life focuses on the soulful relationship between Franz and his wife Fani, poignantly portraying their bond as deeply as Franz’s devotion to his cause. At every turn Fani is there for Franz—strong, unfaltering and supportive of his path while raising their daughters and running the farm alone, eventually with help from her mother-in-law and sister.
Terrence Malick’s film draws on actual letters exchanged between Franz and Fani while Jägerstätter was in prison. The collection Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison was edited by Erna Putz and published in English by Orbis Books. Some lines have been added to the letters, and sometimes the letters are paraphrased.
Franz Jägerstätter’s story was little known outside of St. Radegund, and might never have been discovered, were it not for the research of Gordon Zahn, an American who visited the village in the 1970s.
Producer Grant Hill has worked on several of Malick’s films before, including The Thin Red Line. Grant notes that the themes of A Hidden Life resonated with Malick.
“It’s an extraordinary, enduring love story that investigates human reactions and motivations and just how far people will push for their beliefs and conscience. It asks hard questions—do you have the right to hurt people that you love in service of the greater good? Ultimately, it is a timeless story of devotion, love and forgiveness writ large. I think those aspects appealed very much to Terry,” Hill says.
A Hidden Life differs from the director’s previous films in that it is his first biographical film based on real people whose descendants are still alive.
“The family had suffered enormously, and Terry wanted Franz’s daughters to be involved and give their stamp of approval. We set up a meeting with them through intermediaries to find out if there was a way for him to tell the story that did justice to the story line and made them feel comfortable.
Ultimately, they were prepared to trust Terry with Franz’s legacy, and we worked with them throughout production,” Hill explains.
Casting A Hidden Life
In the early days of the project Terrence Malick made the decision to only cast Austrian and German actors to preserve the authenticity of the story.
Introduced by executive producer Marcus Loges, Malick and Hill worked with casting director Anja Dihrberg (The Captain) had to find the right alchemy of characters. Hill comments, “Even though I’ve spent time in Germany and knew a lot of the actors, it was astounding how many really talented people were coming out.
When casting the principal roles of Franz and Fani it was apparent that there had to be a natural relationship between the two roles.
Valerie Pachner (The Ground Beneath My Feet) emerged first and landed the role of Fani. “Valerie can light up the room. She is very strong having been brought up in that area. She knew exactly who that character would be,” said Hill.
Knowing that they needed to find an exact match in Franz to Valerie’s Fani, the team was nearing the end of the casting process a year later when August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds) entered the picture.
Hill remembers, “Terry had talked to August a number of times, but he was busy and couldn’t get in. What was going to be our last session, Anja called late in the day and said that August was in town unexpectedly, and he could be over to the office in half an hour—he came in and read the pages with Valerie. In that first reading you could see it straight away. They moved together and they had both vulnerability and strength together.”
Reflecting on the casting process August Diehl says, “I remember the first time I read the script I had a lot of talks with Terrence. He was curious about me and who he was going to work with. I remember talking about life and how we each see things,” says Diehl. “I grew up in France on a farm without electricity. He was curious about all this, about how I live and what my experiences were.”
Diehl says he treated the letters between the husband and wife almost like another script alongside Malick’s.
Valerie Pachner had her first conversations with Malick over the phone.
“When he called me the first time we didn’t make any small talk. We immediately talked about the world and life and in that moment, I just felt ‘wow, that’s where I want to go, this is someone I want to work with.’”
Pachner, who grew up in Austria, felt close to the story. “People relied on each other, and at that time that also meant that you could not break out and be different. You had to toe the line. That’s why this story is so unusual.”
Malick sent her a book about women in the first World War working on the farms when the men were away fighting. She also got a present from a friend: a whole book about scything.
Terrence Malick has one of the most intriguing — and influential — approaches to cinematic storytelling of any director working today.
His process is also one that has evolved over the years. In the 38 years prior to “The Tree of Life,” he has made only four feature films. In the eight years since 2011, the 76-year old director has released four more features, along with a documentary, “Voyage of Time.”
Cinematographer Joerg Widmer is a long time collaborator with Malick, and the experience on earlier Malick films provided a baseline language on which to build. While this was the first Malick project for Widmer as cinematographer, he was the steadicam operator and second unit cinematographer under Emmanuel Lubezki on all of Malick’s films dating back to 2005’s “The New World.”
“Terry tends to avoid conventions and find new ways of storytelling and often gives the actors a large amount of freedom to experiment and the camera crew has to be equally open to creative possibilities,” says Widmer.
“Terry and I have a long history together and, as a camera and Steadicam operator on the five previous films, I was familiar with Terry’s approach. So it was easy for me to understand and execute his style of framing and camera movements and to embrace natural light.
August Diehl was also familiar with Malick’s work but never imagined he’d work with him on a film, let alone star in it. “It was so special. I have never experienced a film like this, we were almost constantly in a flow of shooting that allowed us to organically be in the moment ,” says Diehl, describing Malick’s method of filming long takes.
Valerie Pachner adds that she felt empowered by Malick’s style. “We were encouraged to create ourselves and I felt Terry trusted me. We were constantly talking about if there was something else that we should do? I really felt like we are doing this together. And that’s because of his trust. He trusts the people working with him.”
Pachner describes Malick as “very respectful, humble and kind, and also radical. Radical in the way that he’s following his thoughts and his way of seeing things all the time and inviting us to be part of that journey.”
Filming A Hidden Life
Early on, Malick and Widmer decided to shoot primarily using natural light, turning to artificial illumination only on rare occasions. At the mercy of nature, Widmer and his crew had to be flexible.
“Changing lighting conditions required a continuous attention for stop changes to ensure proper exposure,” explains cinematographer Widmer.
For all the other sets, including the prison cells, the team worked with the sun, adjusting the schedule to the appropriate time of day until they lost the light.
“The barns were always shot when the openings of the buildings provided sunlight or at least brightness,” says Widmer.
The team only had to change the shooting schedule once: When the weather forecasters said it wasn’t going to be sunny on the day they planned to shoot the interior of the water mill.
The production was shot digitally on the Red Epic Dragon camera system. The camera was selected for its ability to handle stark contrast within a scene, preserving details in both the highlights and shadows of the image, while still maintaining realistic color.
“We were prepared to keep the camera gear small,” says Widmer. “The lighting gear consisted mostly of bounce boards and blacks.”
The Jägerstätters lived in St. Radegund, a small village of 500 people in Upper Austria, near Salzburg and the German border–in the same province where Hitler was born and spent his early youth–not far from Berchtesgaden, his mountain retreat during his years as head of the German state. The production spent 24 days in South Tyrol, the northernmost province of Italy, then moved into Austria itself, shooting for a few days in St. Radegund itself. For the prison scenes, the production spent the last 14 days in Zittau and Berlin, Germany.
Supervising art director Steve Summersgill says the locations were selected for their texture, authenticity and scope. “Most importantly we learned that the natural light levels were very much part of the decisionmaking process as to whether or not a certain location may or may not work,” Summersgill says.
The film shot in churches and cathedrals, farms with real livestock, orchards, up mountains, in fields and along rural pathways. “Nature and the natural environment were part of the subtext and the locations provided us with a foundation to build up from,” says Summersgill.
Production designer Sebastian Krawinkel carried out research on Franz Jägerstätter and the important places in his life, consulting letters and archive materials.
“We scouted some of the locations together a year in advance in order to see them in the right season,” says Krawinkel. “For almost a year I had a weekly dialogue with Terry about which sets he would need and which locations and references he liked.”
A few scenes were shot in the St. Radegund locations where the events depicted actually took place–including certain interiors of the Jägerstätter house, which has over the years become a pilgrimage site, as well as by the Salzach river near St. Radegund and in the woods below the house. The clock visible on the wall of the Jägerstätter living room is the one that Fani was listening to when, at four in the afternoon on August 9, 1943, at the very hour of Franz’s execution, she remembered feeling her husband’s presence. The bedroom is theirs and looks as it did then. Her embroidery still hangs on the walls. Franz and Fani’s three daughters–Maria, Rosalia and Aloisa–live in, or near, St. Radegund. Fani passed away in 2013, aged 100.
NOTE: Since Malick doesn’t do interviews, lead actors Valerie Pachner and August Diehl, and the film’s cinematographer Jörg Widmer explain the process of making A Hidden Life. Read more
The film’s composer James Newton Howard found his way to the film in a less traditional way.
Grant Hill recalls, “We were at the point of working out if we were going to bring in a composer or whether we go with existing music. Terry had been experimenting with some of James’ music from other films, and eventually reached out to him. It all happened so quickly.”
Howard says scoring the film was a collaborative process.
“One of the early ideas Terry brought to me, was to incorporate sounds he had captured during production such as church bells from the villages, cow and sheep bells, the saw mill, sounds from the prison, and scythes in the fields,” says Howard. ”I took many of those sounds and processed them into musical elements that are woven throughout the score.”
Howard began his process after Malick sent him a series of short clips from the film without any sound or music.
“I wrote very loosely to picture, but we were able to establish the key thematic material and sonic identity of the score. As we moved forward, we chose to work mostly scene by scene where I would write something that he would react to, and then he would often mold the edit to what I had done,” Howard explains.
Though the film takes place up against such an important historical backdrop, the film at its core is a human story. “I chose to focus on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters—writing music to reflect their story.”
Howard began during the film edit.
“After meeting with Terry at my studio in Los Angeles, I flew to Austin and met with his team to watch a cut of the film,” he says. “We worked primarily between March and May of 2018 and recorded everything in early June at Abbey Road Studios in London. “I felt the orchestra was best to reflect the vistas of St. Radegund. The solo violin throughout the film embodies the connection between our two main characters—performed by the violinist James Ehnes.