When German actor August Diehl and his Austrian counterpart Valerie Pachner discovered they were being cast in Terrence Malick's new movie, A Hidden Life, they both received a phone call from the director. "We didn't small talk," says Pachner, 32. "We just talked about life and the world itself, and that made me feel very comfortable because this whole 'Terrence Malick thing' went away immediately."
This “Terrence Malick thing” is one way of referring to the elusive, press-shy filmmaker, who never gives interviews, doesn’t appear on red carpets and even avoids official on-set photography. Diehl, 44, suggests this mystery made it easier to meet him. “You don’t have a thousand pictures and articles where you already know so many things. It gives you the chance to be open to the real personality.”
When they talked, Malick asked him about his life – if he had children, where he grew up. It was the first step in a unique process the director of Badlands and The Thin Red Line has developed over time. "Normally, as an actor, you transform yourself into another and in this movie it was very much the other way around," says Diehl. "I had to open up my personality and gift it to this project; Terrence was never asking [for] this, but in his way of being curious, warm and embracing this happened naturally."
While journalists may never get to know the real Malick, his own character clearly shines through works like The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, which deal with man's connection to spirituality and nature. A Hidden Life is no different, albeit telling the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstetter, a conscientious objector during World War 2, whose refusal to take the Hitler oath as a Wehrmacht conscript ultimately cost him his life.
Written by Malick, the script is inspired by the letters exchanged between Franz and his wife Franziska (played by Pachner) once he was imprisoned – first in the Austrian town of Enns and later in Tegel Prison in Berlin. "Franz had a very strong connection to the earth and to God," explains Diehl, who famously starred in Quentin Tarantino's own WW2 film Inglourious Basterds a decade ago. "Because he was a farmer…he saw a deeper sense of what a man is in this world."
To prepare, Diehl went "very deep" into Jagerstetter's beliefs, reading the Bible and spending time in prayer. Malick also gave him philosophical texts. "I'm not religious," Diehl says, "but I think I have also a spiritual side in me. Let's say I can't deny that things are connected." Pachner, meanwhile, grew up in the same province as the Jagerstetters. "That was pretty helpful," she notes, "because what I could connect with very easily was Franziska's way of being, her beliefs, her spiritual life."
Partly shot in St. Radegund, the small Austrian village where the Jagerstetters lived, Malick's production also journeyed to South Tyrol in Italy. Both Pachner and Diehl worked on the farm where the film was shot, learning to steer a plough and to use a scythe. "It was really physical," says Pachner. "But I loved that because they had to feel real. They had to feel like farmers. They're not intellectuals; they're not sitting in the kitchen talking about this problem."
Malick’s unique directorial style particularly came into play in these scenes, often shooting lengthy takes where the camera would simply watch the actors at work. “After a while you give up acting completely and you’re just sitting on the bench and looking down the valley – and probably this is the moment that Terrence wants,” says Diehl. “It was acting, but in a very, very different way. A very silent way.”
Silence is a huge part of A Hidden Life, something that Malick evidently values. "I remember he said one day that the world is getting louder and louder nowadays," says Diehl, "and that it's probably very important to find a silent place in ourselves, to find the truth and how we act and what we do in the world. He would say something like this but never as a political statement; it was always [phrased] more as a question."
Ultimately, Jagerstetter's staunch and brave refusal to take the Hitler oath hangs over the film, as he steadfastly refuses to explain his motives. Perhaps it was his brief period of military service that turned him, suggests Diehl. "Maybe he thought, 'Well, [if I sign] then everything is destroyed, my love is destroyed, my family…I won't come back from this. I can't make an oath to Hitler, or anyone else, because I already made an oath to God.'"
While they will never know for sure, Pachner says she was able to draw from his actions. “It really comes from a very unique place in your heart – to really follow what you believe is right, even though it means the worst.” During the shoot, she tried her best to get close to that feeling. “That was pretty intense. It was almost elevating, in a way, because I felt so strong. It gave me like a very weird strength.”
After the peaceful communing with nature, Diehl needed every morsel he could muster to endure the horrendous prison sequences in the final two weeks of the shoot, including at Hoheneck, the notorious Stasi prison near Dresden. “That was the most stressful and exhausting part of the whole movie,” he says. “It was such a different world. Everything that was violent and dirty really got into me. Sometimes I was really trembling and having nightmares of violence.”
While Diehl and Pachner had to walk the red carpet for last year's world premiere in Cannes without the media-ducking Malick, there were no hard feelings. "I guess we always knew that it was gonna be that way," shrugs Pachner, who points out they had a more important screening a couple of days earlier – with the real daughters of Franz and Franziska Jgerstetter, who still live in St. Radegund. "They were very emotional," she admits. With their parents' hidden lives up on the big screen – you can well believe it.
A Hidden Life is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, January 16