Stars of Malick's "A Hidden Life": When saying no is "enough to change the world"

Actors August Diehl and Valerie Pachner on Terrence Malick's poetic fable of a farm family who said no to Hitler

Published December 17, 2019 4:00PM (EST)

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl (Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at
Valerie Pachner and August Diehl (Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at

As Terrence Malick’s fans — and, for that matter, his detractors — will surely agree, his films are like no one else’s. Since emerging in the 1970s with “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” both now acknowledged as classics, Malick has been involved in a peculiar quest to push American movies toward symphony or poetry or spiritual exploration, without quite abandoning narrative. He favors techniques, or gestures, that drive studio executives and many mainstream viewers to distraction: the ambiguous voiceover, the extreme long shot, the extended take of human figures amid the ripples and patterns of the natural world.

All that is certainly the case with “A Hidden Life,” which is only the ninth feature of Malick’s 46-year directing career — but his fifth of the 2010s, when he evidently felt the sand in the hourglass beginning to run short. By his recent standards, “A Hidden Life” is both simple and straightforward, and offers an entirely comprehensible narrative based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, a farmer from conservative and deeply religious rural Austria who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, or serve in the German military, after that nation was annexed by Nazi Germany.

If you’re guessing that “A Hidden Life” is not exactly a gripping thriller of wartime resistance, you would be correct. It’s something much rarer and more difficult to categorize: a moral fable of silent faith, perhaps, or a tale of what really matters in a time of strife, violence and hatred. Although Malick is not often understood as an actor’s director — dialogue can be a secondary consideration, and character development, in the conventional sense, doesn’t happen at all — he actually allows his cast tremendous freedom, as August Diehl and Valerie Pachner told me on their recent visit to "Salon Talks."

Diehl, who plays Franz, is best known to American audiences for his role as a Gestapo officer in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Beyond that, he’s one of the most familiar faces in German-language film and TV over the last 15 to 20 years, and in recent years has starred in the miniseries “Perfume,” “Bauhaus” and “Close to the Enemy,” as well as playing the young Karl Marx in the film titled, um, “The Young Karl Marx.”

Pachner, who is herself Austrian, and knew a little about the Jägerstätter story before making this film, is much newer to acting. She appeared with Diehl in the series “Bauhaus” and was cast in a leading role in “A Hidden Life” and the Austrian thriller “The Ground Beneath My Feet” almost simultaneously.

This was a remarkable opportunity to learn about the methods of a famously private director who almost never does interviews and follows no one’s artistic dictates except his own. “A Hidden Life” is not for everyone, and certainly won’t be a hit by ordinary commercial standards. But as its two leads told me, it almost accidentally being a quiet, meditative film set in the 1940s that is actually about the much noisier world around us today.

Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with August Diehl and Valerie Pachner here, or read an edited transcript below, trimmed slightly for length and clarity.

I'm going to guess, speaking to you two, that being in a film directed by Terry Malick is a little different from other experiences you may have had in film and television. But before we get to that, talk about the story, which is really interesting. Is the story of Franz Jägerstätter — the character you play, August — well known in the German-speaking nations? I certainly didn’t know about it. 

August Diehl: Oh, no. Not really.

Valerie Pachner: It's not that well-known there. Not even in Austria, where it should be very well known. People know about it, but it's not that everyone talks about it all the time. He's not treated as a national hero, or something like that.

So it’s not like the case of Sophie Scholl in Germany, who is really famous.

Pachner: No. It doesn't have that scale. That might change now! 

So tell us a little bit about the real story.

Diehl: It is a story about this man, Franz Jägerstätter, a farmer that lived in the '40s in Austria, in a place called Radegund. When the Second World War broke out, and all Austrian farmers had to swear the oath to Hitler and become a part of the Wehrmacht, he decided to not do it. Out of a very simple decision, to not be part of a killing system. And this decision led to . . .  yeah, I don't want to spoil anything! 

Valerie, you play his wife, Franziska or Fani. So you knew a little bit about the story, before making the film? 

Pachner: I knew a little bit. I am from Austria, and I grew up in that area where they lived. And so, I was familiar with it, but also not as detailed as I am now. And yeah, it's kind of surprising. You would think that everyone talks about it all the time, but not even in Austria. It's not a topic that is there all the time. 

Diehl: Yeah. It's funny, because I heard also that even in the United States, he's much more well-known than in Austria. I think Muhammad Ali quoted him once. Actually, this whole story is very interesting, because he was also treated for a long time as somebody . . .  Not like a hero. Like somebody who was stubborn, and a little bit like a fool. It took time before people realized that was a strong decision, and he was kind of a hero. But even in our day, he's not very well known. For me, it was actually Terrence Malick, that he told me about this. That was the first time I heard about him.  

How did Terry Malick hear about this story? Do you know?

Pachner: No, I just know that it dates back into the '90s, as something that he's thought about.

Malick’s films have often been described as spiritual, and one element of this story is that Franz and his wife are motivated by deep religious faith, right? Which is interesting, partly because it's much less a part of European life now. How did you think about that?

Diehl: I thought, always, that, you know, religion and also love — all these things, they're increasing when a problem comes. I always thought, of course these were Catholic people, and they were also very religious. That gave them faith and strength during a very, very hard time.

But I still think that our movie is not so much about religion. It's about something much simpler, like a very clear and very simple decision, like a child would do. You know? Every child on earth knows exactly what is right and what is wrong, and only we, when we're adults, we lose that a little bit, because we have so much different information and points of view, and we find it even discussable, if we kill people or not. 

A child would never discuss this, and Franz didn't either. For him, it was a mistake to do it. So, we can talk about religion, but it's also something very simple. And the simplicity of the whole story, that's also the powerful thing in it.

As anybody who’s ever seen one of Malick’s films will suspect, this is a gorgeous, sumptuous visual and sonic experience. What is the role of the actor in creating that? It has to be different than, say, doing a television show, where the main focus is on your dialogue or your characterization.

Pachner: Yeah. You get much more space, and working with Terry really allows you to contribute to the whole process, and to the film as well. So, you're not only there as an actor to deliver your lines. You're much more there to also create the scenes, and you're invited to come up with ideas.

Terry would be very open to us to bring in our own ideas for moments. I mean, we have the very strong narrative, which is great, you know? So that was something we could all hold on to all the time. But on the other hand, we would improvise a lot. We could tell him, "I would like to try this and that," and so he was really open for us to explore our characters. And that's wonderful, because you can — I realized, like in the second week, "Wow. I can actually try to come up with my own ideas, and bring them in." It just gives you so much responsibility, also, and you feel like you really are part of the whole thing.

Everyone starts to contribute to the story, and forgets about your ego. You know, you just sort of get into . . . You really start to just think about the story. That was a wonderful experience on set, nobody was just thinking about himself. I think that's because Terry is sort of — you know, he allows that to happen. He's not afraid of letting other people take control.

There obviously is dialogue in the film. By his standards, it’s probably kind of a lot. But so much of the film is not verbal. So much of what you're doing as actors, as characters, is about being in the physical spaces, moving through that scenery. That has to be a completely different kind of work from the kind of role where it's like you learn the script and focus on that.

Diehl: Yeah. It took time for me, I have to admit. It took time to film that way, or to work that way. Also, the fact that you realize that you can be boring three days in a row, without doing anything. Like, that is allowed. You know? Because it opens up other things, the space that you have. For 10 minutes you know what to do, and you can be entertaining or interesting or whatever. But, you know, after 10 minutes, you fall into a black hole and you don't do anything anymore. And probably this is the most interesting moment, and he's waiting for this. But I have to admit, it took time for me to get into this. It also took time after this movie to jump into a normal movie again. You know?

Pachner: Yeah, because you feel so free, and you're just moving about in the whole environment, and you don't really have to follow the strict script. It's so liberating, and it's kind of hard to get back into order and structure.

It reminds me of that story about Al Pacino that Jesse Eisenberg tells. He’s doing a scene with Al Pacino, and right before the camera turns on, Pacino says to him, "Kid, just because they say ‘Action’ doesn't mean you have to do anything."

Diehl: Yeah, that's true. It's like that. I remember, because also the way he films. You know, we didn't have any lights, and we were actually on the whole day, not even having a break. I remember one day I was even sleeping in the meadow, because I was so exhausted, and when I woke up the camera was right there. So, it was constant — catching and filming moments. That's very much the way he works. He said once he was waiting for the birds to fly up the meadow. You know, when the shot comes. Like a moment that you can't plan.

That's interesting. It's not as if he's working with non-actors, where you sort of have to do that. He’s taking professional actors and finding the moments when you're not acting.

Pachner: Yeah. That's what he's looking for most, I guess when life happens, where you lose control. Yet it's good to be sort of prepared. I think we both felt it was good that we knew the story, and we knew how to use the scythe and stuff like that. Like, the physical side of it. But then there comes a point where you're prepared, but on the other hand you want to just let go. And I think that's the wonderful thing that he's so good at, to create that moment where this can happen, where your creativity just sort of flows. And that was really, on most of the days, an experience we had, where you found those moments.

One of the things that's interesting about this film is the way the dialogue goes back and forth between German and English at different times. What was the rationale for that, if you can explain it? How was that as an actor? What was that like?

Diehl: It happened. I think we had the decision to make this an English-speaking movie, but then we had all these actors, and also extras, who were actually from this region, Germans and Austrians. They were just improvising in their own language, and that's also shows exactly what we said about Terry, that he's open to this. He's not saying, "Oh, hold on. You should speak English." He's grateful for whatever happens. And I always have the impression that for him, language is not so much information. It is more like music. It's like noise.

Pachner: Even for us, for the acting, at some point you sort of forgot the borders of the language. It was almost fluid, and it didn't really matter whether they spoke English or German. It just was more about what is happening, and less what language they speak.

What you said about Malick and language, I think is very interesting. I mean, in his early film “Days of Heaven,” from the ‘70s, there’s a fair amount of dialogue you just can’t hear, right? Sometimes the dialogue is there maybe to convey important plot points, but he doesn't really think of it that way.  

Pachner: Even more so in our film, where it's really not that much about words. Also, their decision — you know, it doesn't come from an intellectual point of view. It's more like an inner feeling. And they are farmers, so they don't have those elaborate dialogues. But it's really more about, yeah, silence, and an inner silence, also, where that decision comes from.

That's really interesting, I hadn't thought about that. We see these little snippets of historical footage. One of the things about the world of Hitler and the Nazis, is how noisy it is. Right? Hitler is shrieking all the time, the rallies are really noisy. There's all this music and everything. That's completely different from the world that these people live in.

Diehl: And it's also more like our world now. I feel very much that the world is getting louder and louder. It’s missing these silent moments, the contemplative moments where you're just with yourself. Out of this, the right decisions can come. Not in a noisy thing. Not in a loud world. There's also this metaphor in this movie with a train and machinery, and this rhythm that is like a threat. I always had the impression that my character was somebody who would find his decision in silence, not in the loud world.

You know, given the period and the setting, people may want to see this as a “political” film. But I bet you're going to agree with me on this — I really didn’t see it that way. It’s not exactly a story about fighting the Nazis. 

Diehl: It's very interesting that you say this, because for me, it is very much a personal decision that turns out to be political. It's like, you know, first of all, you have a distance to something, or a feeling. And then you have a decision, and that's personal. And the reaction of the others, that makes it political, and that makes it bigger than you thought.

I'm sure that Franz Jägerstätter was not somebody who said to himself, "Now I have to do a political thing." It's more a reaction than an act. It's more like saying no to something. And I think in this, there is so much power. If you say no to something, everybody who jumps on the train is irritated by this, because it's uncomfortable. It's annoying. You get angry, actually, because a "no"? We don't want to hear a "no." We don't like this. To stick to the "no" is a very strong thing.

Before the camera was on, we spoke earlier about the large majority of people in Germany or Austria who weren’t Nazis, but also weren't prepared to resist. To someone like that, who says, "It's none of my business. I don't know what’s happening to the Jewish people. It's not my problem." But when somebody in the society is saying "no" to the whole thing, that makes it more difficult. 

Diehl: Yeah, it is very difficult. It makes the machinery run, all these people who just don't care. Therefore, everything runs. That's the oil in the machinery, the people who don't care. I don't want to judge them, because I don't even know if I would have done this. But the “no,” that's the sand in the machinery. That makes everything stop. That's a powerful thing. And it kind of comforts me that a “no” is already enough to change the world, actually. You don't have to have a big plan, or a big political movement. You don't have to be Gandhi, I would say. You can just say no to things, and everything will stop.

Pachner: Yeah, that's the wonderful thing about this movie. I think that it doesn't show a person who is, like, leading a revolution. These are very simple people. And it just shows you that each and every one of us has this responsibility for their own decisions. It can be a no or a yes, but it's you who jumps on the train or not. And you don't have to be an intellectual to take that decision. It's something very simple, that every one of us is capable of taking. 

This is a movie set in the 1940s, but it's being released now. So people are going to want to see a connection to our time, whether it's talking about Donald Trump or, in your countries, about the tremendous anxiety around immigration and the rise of the far right. I mean there are actual Nazis again, in small numbers, but most people thought we would never see that again. So in some ways, is this movie really about today?

Pachner: Of course. I mean, we shot it three years ago, you know? And it's quite surprising how those tendencies, right-wing tendencies, got stronger over the last three years in Austria, in Germany, in many parts of the world. And I think — it's not something we were thinking about at that time, but still, it's surprising how fast those tendencies are, and it makes you feel, even more, that you have to be really awake in every moment. You know, this thing, it's not long ago. 

This family’s daughters are still alive. They're in their 80s. We showed them the film, in their living room, before the premiere at Cannes. They liked it. They had to cry, of course. But they were very moved, and they really liked it, which was kind of important. You know, seeing them still carrying this pain of having lost their father, and they're still alive. Seeing them witness those tendencies rise again, it's just heartbreaking. More than heartbreaking. 

To answer your question, that moment, being there with them, made me realize how important it is that we tell that story, and how it's just not a long time ago. I remember, filming the movie, I felt like, how could this happen? You know? How can war, and this kind of regime even happen? It's so destructive and terrible. And then to see that this might be something that can come back, it's just frightening.

It’s so important that you are clear in those moments, and that you not get swept away with the train. Not just because it's so noisy, and you don't know what's going on. In those moments, it's important to have this clarity, and sort of silence, to really feel, "No, no. I'm a human being. I'm not an animal. I can decide what is right and what is wrong, and I have to, even if it's going beyond my needs, and maybe even my survival instincts." I think that is something that the movie shows, to connect you with that feeling, and how important that is.

To go back to what you said earlier, it’s the idea that even this quiet and personal act of refusal, this saying no, can have an impact. You don't have to be Martin Luther King. You don't have to lead demonstrations of thousands of people. If it happens in the right place at the right time, saying no can have a meaning.

Diehl: I have always thought this. Like, we are often saying, "Oh, what can we do?" We feel helpless. We say, "They have the power. They're powerful people." But we forget that, actually, they have the power because we are going along with it. A simple no, if we say no, all the powerful people don't have any power anymore. It's because we are saying, "OK." We act like sheep, and therefore the whole machinery keeps running. Everything is like it is, but not because the powerful people are deciding this. It's because of us. We're following.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir