Does it matter if wartime resistance is futile? A resolute stand leads to the obscure death of a man, only belatedly turned into a saint by the Church that let him down.
Terrence Malick’s account of Franz Jägerstätter’s last years is an intense sensory experience, overwhelming with visual beauty and a soundtrack that makes body and mind sing. Jägerstätter, played here with quiet dignity by August Diehl, had been an Austrian farmer who refused to fall in line with the majority of his compatriots, first, when Austria was annexed by Germany, and later, by offering to join as a paramedic rather than a combattant during WW2. As a conscientious objector, he was shunned by fellow villagers, and when he was finally arrested in 1943, quietly executed. He fell into obscurity until the 1960s. His story did not fit well with postwar narratives of resistance – as a religious man killed for religious views, he could not be easily adopted by the Left. Meanwhile his choices starkly exposed those of the Catholic church. In the fullness of time, his memory has been better honoured, and this is not merely symbolic: his act of resistance also led to life-changing consequences for his wife and four daughters, who were ostracised and impoverished.
This version of Jägerstätter’s life and death relies entirely on that assumption of quiet dignity, and on the cinematic splendour that defines Malick’s work. The majestic Alpine landscapes here echo aspects of Berg films, the popular German mountain film genre of the late 1920s and early 1930s. That feast of the senses is undercut, in ways that heighten emotion and sensations, by a meditative account of Jägerstätter’s suffering. At the heart of the story, we find a martyr’s calvary.
Yet it is possible to read this film in non-religious ways, and instead, in simply moral terms: this is the story of an obstinate man fighting for a principle – he does not wish to avoid suffering by causing the suffering of others. That, in itself, is enough. This is heroic, and it is human. It does not require the quiet reverential dignity Malick attributes to his hero – and by contemporary accounts, Jägerstätter was a lively, argumentative, outspoken, resolute man.
It took a good six months for this reviewer to shake off enough of Malick’s powerful spell to take some distance from a remarkable cinematic experience. Enjoy a powerful, beautiful, pleasurable film – and don’t forget the real ‘inconvenient’ man who inspired it.
Director and Writer Terrence Malick
Cinematographer Jörg Widmer
Cast August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon