Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
Germany/USA, 2019. Studio Babelsberg, Elizabeth Bay Productions, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. Screenplay by Terrence Malick. Cinematography by Jorg Widmer. Produced by Elisabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio, Grant Hill, Josh Jeter. Music by James Newton Howard. Production Design by Sebastian T. Krawinkel. Costume Design by Lisy Christl. Film Editing by Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones. Cannes Film Festival 2019. Independent Spirit Awards 2019. National Board of Review Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
A concern over the rise in popularity of right-wing politics has found its way into the work of many directors in the years since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, which has also brought along an interest in exploring the environments that foster these hostile periods of inequality and injustice, with Nazi Germany the easiest comparison of them all. Terrence Malick, he who has made many a cinematic ballet out of grass bending in the wind, turns his own ruminations on divine faith in flawed humans to this period in time, telling the story of a true-life Austrian farmer who refused to pledge an oath of allegiance to Hitler despite the danger it posed to him and his family. Living a bucolic life on a beautiful mountain top with his wife and children, as always in a Malick film rendered in flowy montage with snatches of dialogue laid over scenes that care little of synching up to the moments they describe, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is put through basic training and returns home when the fall of France convinces all of Germany that the war will soon be over. When Jägerstätter and his fellow villagers are called to action, he refuses to go, stating that he finds the Nazi regime morally repugnant to his Christian beliefs. His sympathetic neighbours beg him to reconsider for his own safety, his less friendly neighbours spit on him for his lack of patriotism (and possibly their worry that he will bring trouble to the whole community, though Malick doesn’t give their characters enough dimension to suggest this too strongly). A powerful story about a man for all seasons, one who sticks to principle when it is least convenient for him, this respectable film is knocked out of the possibility of being a classic thanks to the fact that it feels so familiar, at this point if you’ve seen one beautifully shot Malick scene you’ve seen them all. Making it even more difficult is the fact that the little dialogue we are given is, when in English, mostly bad, often sounding like Malick asked non-English speakers to improvise their idea of living under the Third Reich, while the “bad” Germans, in an inexplicably stupid choice on the director’s part, all speak actual German. The montage style of narrative often works against the drama, there are plenty of potentially good scenes (like Jägerstätter’s mother confronting her son towards the end) that are killed by his cutting away to swing his camera over another field.