Germany. The 1930s. An almost square screen shows a series of flickering monochrome images. It may say something about the world in which we live in ((c) Paul McCartney) that this is the second film on general release (after Jojo Rabbit) that opens with scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”. This time the backing music is much more sombre than the Beatles.
The screen pans out to rural Austria. A caption informs us that all Austrian men of a certain age have been conscripted to the Reichsarmee. This includes Franz. Cue long scenes of Franz’s current pastoral existence with his new wife Fani farming their small village. As Franz is sent to war (but does not actually fight), their relationship continues with letters which we hear in voiceover.
1943. Franz has returned to the village on a special dispensation for farmers. But the atmosphere is very different to the idyllic opening scenes. Most villagers now have sons at the front and are fully supporting the war effort. Despite some lower level clergy damning Hitler, the Church authorities know which side their bread is buttered and are urging people to sign up to the German army.
Franz is called up again and this time refuses to fight. The rest of the film switches between the various prisons to which he is sent and Fani’s increasingly isolated life in the village. The villagers make it known that they don’t support Franz’s stand, although Fani is shunned rather than thrown out. She still takes part in some of the communal farming activities but passers-by ignore her, and spit into her bag of wheat. Her 3 moppet daughters are excluded from social activities. Fani and her sister are left alone to tend the farm, without any outside help.
Franz’s life in prison is equally isolated. The prisoners are kept apart, not allowed to talk to each other, even when they’re walking round the prison yard. They are randomly, and viciously, beaten. Yet Franz doesn’t give an inch. Offered the opportunity to be released if he takes medical rather than military duties he still refuses, as this would still require him to declare an oath of allegiance to the Führer.
Franz’s resistance is religious rather than political, individual rather than collective. Here he stands, he can do no other. As a devout Catholic, maybe he’d prefer a different quote than one from Martin Luther, but he shows the same stoic fundamentalism, the same refusal to bend in the face of mere worldly matters.
It is a point of view that I understand well. My own grandfather was a conscientious objector for similar reasons to Franz, and my mother was incapable of lying. I have utmost respect for this form of resistance, even if I’d personally argue that a more pragmatic means would justify the ends. Terence Malick is right to say that lives like Franz’s are hidden, and more should be done to make them known. I’m just not sure that film is the best medium to do this.
For a start, Franz’s absolute refusal to compromise means that there is pretty much no dramatic tension. For a brief while you wonder whether the end of the war may come in and provide a Deus Ex Machina, that will spare Franz from having to make a decision, but as the process against him speeds up it becomes clear that everything will be resolved before Russian and US-American troops reach Berlin.
Added to this, the sheer isolation of both Franz and Fani means that they are rarely able to communicate with anyone else, except through their exchanged letters. This is also dramatically problematic. The letters are surprizingly honest and admit loneliness and despair rather than pretending that everything’s going fine, but again, there is no possible way out. Well not one that would occur to their stubborn personalities.
The rare occasions in which Franz is allowed to speak to other people are the least plausible. A Nazi judge, like a couple of people before him, asks Franz incredulously how he can be so determined and unwilling to do a deal. This may be dramatically necessary, but I find it hard to believe that such concern for a traitor’s well-being and thought processes would be shown by someone who has risen so high.
And yet this remains the most interesting question – why does Franz act as he does when his individual actions don’t – can’t – affect anything? It is a question that he – and the film – is unable to answer, as his will to resist come from within, not from a logic that he can articulate. This makes good philosophy but less good drama.
In short, Ein verborgenes Leben asks a number of interesting questions, but is then not really able to deal with them adequately. It is also beautifully shot – from the sumptuous scenes of the beautiful Austrian village to the grim German prison. On looks alone, this is a Work Of Art.
However, it is also way too long. Most of the first hour – covering the period before 1943 – could be easily cut without affecting the interesting points of the plot. This would cut the film down to a more manageable 2 hours. I guess it is better that the film improves as it goes on, and you end up leaving the cinema feeling that you’ve seen an honourable failure, but with enough good bits to make your visit worthwhile.
Post Script: the English version isn’t available in Berlin yet, so I saw the synchronized German version (thus avoiding a controversy that I’ve read about where the good Germans speak English to each other and the bad ones German). So, here’s a fun fact: if you have great actors like August Diehl and Franz Rogowski, who do you get to dub their voices into German? Why, August Diehl and Franz Rogowski of course.