A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life ★★★★★

What I’m about to tell you is true. 

My background is Austrian. My father moved here in 1980 for a new and better life in Canada with his brother and mother, where 4 years later he had me, and 20 years later he told me a story about our family history after I asked because at school we were talking about WW2, and how all of my friends had a relative that fought in it. Ignorant and oblivious, I assumed my grandfather either did not participate in the war, or fought against Hitler’s Nazi army. What I learned next shook me. 

In 1939, at the height of the Nazi regime, you couldn’t escape Nazi favouritism from any corner of Europe, especially in Austria (a country annexed by Germany), specifically in small, unknown, tucked and hidden away farm villages in the mountains of Austria. 

My great-uncle, aged 18, who my father never had the pleasure of meeting, was served with orders one afternoon by a man on a bicycle. He did not believe in Hitler, did not want to fight, nor did he want to kill people. So, he fled into the forests, hid, and waited for the war to blow over. Little did he know it’d go on for a number of years. 

At night though, he’d sneak down, meet my grandmother, two farm hands (an Austrian and Ukrainian woman), and my grandfather, aged 36, who had not yet been served with his marching orders. 

Unfortunately, one night a group of men showed up, dressed in plain clothes, announced their presence to my grandmother with the usual “Heil, Hitler!” followed by the salute, and asked for my great-uncle. Scared, and worried, he walked outside, an exchange of indistinguishable words occurred followed by a single gunshot. The men left the house, silence ensued, and not even cries were let out in fear, as the men proceeded to prod hay piles in their farm in the attempt of finding people hiding away from their “duties”. My great-uncle lay lifeless in the mud. 

After a short while, they entered the farm, pointed a pistol at my grandfathers head, and said if he’ll join the fight. Shaken, and afraid for what they’d do to the rest of the farm if he said no, he naturally said “Ja” (yes) and the next day, he was gone as the body of his brother was being cleaned. 

The next couple of years he escaped death, hid under dead bodies while bullets flew over him, injured, captured, and beaten, returned home and swore off religion, questioned God at every turn, and embraced the bottle. A man once charged with carrying out good, saw no point any longer. He lived his life with hidden anger. 

After his death, he was buried in his home town of Sankt (Saint) Radegund, Austria, next to a man, Franz Jägerstätter. 

Naturally, like every Terrence Malick film, I chose to go in blind and rather welcomed the bingo-like game every Malick film has with questions about humanity, the point of God, religion, and the sins of the past that build the barren wasteland of times-future. 

So, sitting down, popcorn in hand, in a packed theatre at TIFF 2019, under the influence of a legal substance, that when the words “Saint Radegund, Austria” appeared on screen, with the character name “Franz” and loosely based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, I immediately began to well up. Three and a half hours could not have gone by both slowly and quickly at the same time. I was glued to my seat, my emotions in full and complete control. 

Every interaction Franz had with villagers I imagined my grandfather being a part of. I pictured what his life would have been in a time when a nobody is forced to fight for somebody’s misguided, violent and evil cause. Franz’ actions even morphed into how I pictured my great-uncle fought with his decision to say no and hide. In the end, sacrificing the ultimate price. 

I never met my grandfather — he died in his 90s, scared, alone, and addicted to the bottle. 

Chances are that you find Terrence Malick's films to be either uniquely defined cinematic experiences, or the most insufferable thing you've ever seen hit the silver screen before your now seething with rage eyes. If you're in the former, then there's no point in telling you that A Hidden Life continues to be an exclusively solitary Terrence Malick film experience. 

When the film ended, stunned, dazed and confused, I walked outside, texted my girlfriend and met her for a drink. I didn’t let the movie sink in until that night when my subconscious took over my mind and built a dream landscape of unbridled emotions.

This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, maybe largely due to the emotional impact it had, but mainly because Malick’s back. 

I doubt anybody will read this, and I highly doubt Terrence Malick will even see this, but Mr. Malick, you reached out, grabbed my heart, and told a part of my families hidden story. 

A Hidden Life. 

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