The best Terrence Malick movies have almost always been the period pieces. Maybe that’s simply because it’s easier for audiences to accept his swooning, meditative filmmaking style and rhapsodic voice-overs when they’re coming from the mouths and minds of World War II soldiers (“The Thin Red Line”) or Pocahontas (“The New World”) rather than Hollywood screenwriters (“Knight of Cups”) and Ben Affleck (”To the Wonder”).
“A Hidden Life,” Malick’s strongest and most emotionally transcendent work in some years, doesn’t stick to the playbook, though. The true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who took a principled stand against Hitler’s regime and paid with his life, it is set during the dire days of the Third Reich. Yet only a fool would miss the movie’s relevance to America in the second decade of our new millennium. A commemoration of a saint, it’s also a warning.
Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl (“Inglourious Basterds”), whose noble, earthbound leanness calls to mind the young Henry Fonda. Franz is married to Fani (Valerie Pachner), and they have three young daughters; Malick paints their life in the high mountain village and fields of St. Radegund, near the top of the Alps, as a paradise of nature and honest hard work. Jorg Widmer is the cinematographer; the visuals recall “The Sound of Music” with tougher, more existential stakes.
“A Hidden Life” opens with historical footage of Hitler’s annexation of Austria, and James Newton Howard’s piercingly lyrical score darkens when Fani looks up from her labors at an unseen plane droning overhead. Franz hears the speechifying of the town’s collaborationist mayor (Karl Markovics, Diehl’s costar in the fine 2007 film “The Counterfeiters”) at the local biergarten, and his words may strike your ears with hot shame. “Foreigners swarm over our streets!” he cries. “Immigrants who don’t care about the past but only what they can grab!”
To which Franz replies on the soundtrack, to his wife and to us, “What’s happened to our country? To the land we love?. . . Don’t they know evil when they see it?”
“A Hidden Life” bases much of its words on Franz and Fani’s letters to each other and much of its visuals on Jägerstätter’s journey to martyrdom. A devout Catholic, he refuses to sign the oath of loyalty to the Third Reich, a moral act that alienates his family from the rest of the village and ultimately brings him to the attention of the Germans and their stacked justice system.
Everyone is convinced Jägerstätter is foolish, crazy, needlessly obstinate. The local priest (Tobias Moretti) urges him to think of his family. The priest’s superior (Michael Nyqvist, in his final role) insists “You have a duty to the Fatherland. The church tells you so.” A German officer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Jägerstätter’s own lawyer (Alexander Fehling) both remind him that his protest will go unheard, that it will change nothing. Even Franz agonizes whether a man has the right to put himself to death for a principle.
To which this movie replies with sweeping camerawork and a keening soundtrack that if a person’s actions don’t have meaning, then nothing does, whether God is paying attention or is busy elsewhere. Howard’s score is complemented by cuts from mystic minimalists Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, and, um, George Frideric Handel, and the music exalts a viewer while the letters between the now-jailed Franz and his wife sustain both them and us, even as the privations of his imprisonment in Berlin and sentencing by a quietly marveling German judge (the great Bruno Ganz, in his final role) point inexorably toward one end.
Jägerstätter’s story did go untold until the 1960s, when he was written about by Thomas Merton, among others; he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, in 2007. Regardless of your spiritual persuasions, should you see “A Hidden Life”? Honestly, I think everyone should. The film is overlong but worthy, with Malick’s by-now-standard cinematic tics — couples frolicking idyllically in meadows, murmured pensees on the soundtrack — gathering a great and righteous weight. The movie takes its place alongside Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (2016) as a work of true solemnity, one that wonders what we owe the divine in our worldly life. If the Scorsese film is arguably about the profoundest of doubts, “A Hidden Life” is something different. It’s an act of faith. Maybe Malick knows we’ll be needing it.
A HIDDEN LIFE
Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Dedham Community. 174 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material including violent images)