'Stand up against far right' says star of Cannes WWII drama

Deborah COLE
"A Hidden Life" starring August Diehl and Valerie Pachner is Terrence Malick's haunting story of an Austrian conscientious objector guillotined by the Nazis in 1943

The star of a heart-wrenching true story about an Austrian anti-Nazi martyr executed during World War II said Monday he hoped the film would inspire people to "stand

"A Hidden Life" by Hollywood director Terrence Malick -- which premiered at the Cannes film festival -- tells the story of Austrian farmer Franz Jaegerstaetter, who chose in 1943 to be guillotined rather than pledge his allegiance to Hitler.

He is played in the near three-hour epic by August Diehl, one of Germany's top film stars, who said the movie's example of resistance in the face of rising radicalism had become bracingly relevant.

"It is actually time to stand up against all this right-wing development in Europe -- it's going a very wrong way. We have all our private choices to make and how to handle this," he told reporters.

Asked about European elections this week in which the extreme right is expected to make further inroads, Diehl added: "Our voice counts -- each voice, I think."

The film shows how Jaegerstaetter's home village Sankt Radegund near the German border falls under Hitler's sway as its mayor rails against "foreigners" and "traitors" keeping Austria down.

When Jaegerstaetter, a modest and religious family man, is called up to serve in the army when war breaks out, he rejects the cause as "evil" and refuses to take the oath to the Nazi leader.

- 'What would I have done?' -

He is imprisoned, beaten and tortured and repeatedly told that if he will simply sign the pledge, he can go free and return to his wife Fani and three young daughters.

The family, left alone, suffers harassment from the other villagers over Jaegerstaetter's stance and struggles to maintain the farm.

Jaegerstaetter was finally taken to Berlin for trial where he exchanged a series of anguished letters with Fani which formed the basis of the screenplay.

Despite bouts of conscience about the fate of his young family, Jaegerstaetter opted to lose his life in August 1943 rather than sacrifice his convictions.

Diehl said Malick framed the film "not as an answer" to an agonising moral quandary "but as a question" -- what is the point of a seemingly hopeless act of resistance?

"This is a main question, I think, especially for all Germans but also in the whole world -- what would I have done?" Diehl said.

"It wasn't so easy to do this and (Jaegerstaetter) went through many doubting periods because he did something terrible as well to his family and to his kids in leaving them. But he felt that was the true (answer)."

Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, who plays Fani, said the movie's themes were "timeless" as the recent political upheaval in her own country over a far-right scandal proved.

"The film tells me different things each time I see it," she said. Watching it this week as her country's government collapsed, "I think it's quite moving and important."

Pachner said the reclusive director, who declined to walk Cannes's famous red carpet or give interviews, secretly attended the premiere of the movie, which moved many viewers at the world's top film festival to tears.

- 'Unforgettable' -

It has also garnered Malick his best reviews since 2011, when his movie "The Tree of Life" starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain clinched Cannes's Palme d'Or top prize.

Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang called the picture "a return to form and a spiritual call to arms". Germany's Der Spiegel magazine hailed it as "unforgettable".

Pachner said a special screening had been arranged for Jaegerstaetter's three surviving daughters last week in their village, where Malick filmed part of the movie in their father's former home.

The title of "A Hidden Life" comes from the final line of the English novel "Middlemarch" by George Eliot: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."