Three years ago, a small film crew drove into the Austrian Alps in search of a remote valley. It would serve as one of the settings for Terrence Malick's vision of paradise.
"We'd taken a big, big risk when we decided to go," says the film's producer Grant Hill. "We had next to no funds. [We] felt, for some reason, we'd work that out as we went along — which, I wouldn't advise doing it again that way, but it worked. And this combination of the mountain background, the faces on the people, the weather really did — I mean, it was otherworldly."
The film came to be called A Hidden Life. It's based on the letters of an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis — and was executed for his resistance.
It's the latest film from acclaimed director Terrence Malick. He's known for epic movies like The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Like those films, Malick's latest is about grand themes like love, faith and war.
A Hidden Life opens in the dark with nature sounds. The screen then comes to life: mountain valleys, waterfalls, rivers flowing, clouds rolling.
Actor Valerie Pachner is from Austria. She's one of the stars of the film.
"There is this incredibly beautiful landscape," Pachner says. "But on the other hand there's also a certain darkness to it. And I always feel like — you know, there is these beautiful mountains, but then you have those very dark forests. And then when you think about the second World War, I feel like there's always sort of both, in nature. And that's what I feel Terry [Malick] really captured so well."
Terence Malick made the film with cinematographer Joerg Widmer.
"Nature, you have to capture when it happens," Widmer says. "So you can't design it. It's just: When it's dusk, you have to be there and capture the dusk. If you have heavy weather coming up, then you should be at the right place just to capture the wind, just capture the beauty of the clouds."
But the year is 1939, and that natural beauty is interrupted with the arrival of war planes. The German actor August Diehl plays the farmer who became a conscientious objector — his name was Franz Jägerstätter.
"He decided not to fight, and not to swear an oath to Hitler, and to not be part of the whole machinery of war," Diehl says. "What is a feeling at the first place becomes more and more a real decision, and he sticks to this and sacrifices his whole family for this until the very end."
Franz Jagerstatter expressed his doubts in letters to his wife. His resistance became a crisis of his Catholic faith, and his village turned against him and his family.
The writer Eric Benson wrote an article about Terrence Malick for Texas Monthly magazine two years ago. He says A Hidden Life is filled with the spiritual questions that have defined the elusive filmmaker's work.
"I think it's concerned with these really basic philosophical questions of: What should a good man do in the face of evil?" Benson says. "How do you navigate your loyalties to country and to God and to your own morality?"
Terence Malick is now 76 and lives in Austin, Texas. He hasn't given any interviews in decades.
"Probably if he were to show up and talk about all this, we wouldn't have, probably ... this kind of nice movies from him," says Diehl, the actor. "That's linked to each other. The silence in the public is saving energy for a language — which really matters."
That film language includes voiceovers, swirling images and widescreen landscapes. It's not for everyone.
"A Terrence Malick movie is almost like: If you were to shoot a normal movie, and then you were to take that footage and almost make an artistic collage out of it, kill the dialogue and have the images — instead of being tied together by a pretty conventional story — be tied together by sort of mood and ideas and images," Benson says. "So it's almost like watching a movie and having a dream about that movie. The Malick movie is that dream you have that night."
Despite its signature dream-like style, many critics have called A Hidden Life Terrence Malick's most direct film. Diehl says it offers an antidote to our current political culture.
"I have the feeling that we live in a world which is getting louder and louder," Diehl says. "And so it is very, very hard to find a silent place in ourselves where we can still see which is right and which is wrong. Therefore our movie is so relevant right now — it's not only politics; it's in a very simple way, a silent resistance of somebody who is hidden. Like, we all are actually hidden lives. Everybody lives a hidden life."
Pachner, who plays Fani Jägerstätter (Franz's wife), says that if the film insists on a political position, it is a message of kindness — and turning the other cheek.
"It always sounds cheesy when I say it, but I just feel it's true," Pachner says. "This tendency of hatred and being against each other: The only thing that can oppose that is love, in any sense. You know, not only in the romantic way, but also in the sense of being kind to your neighbors even though they are yelling at you; being kind to nature; being kind to whatever you are confronted with ... because this is what makes us human beings."
Franz Jägerstätter was executed at age 36 on Aug. 9, 1943. His letters are now on screen in Terrence Malick's memorial to what was once "a hidden life."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After weeks of unrest, the streets of Haiti are back to their usual busy, traffic-clogged state just in time for Christmas. Anti-government protesters who had put up barricades and burned tires are taking a holiday break. It's allowed businesses to reopen and local artists to spread the Haitian Christmas spirit. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Port-au-Prince.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Francisco Silva (ph) shakes a can of bright red spray paint before he adds the final touches to the large red face that is the centerpiece of his latest mural. It's covering the wall in front of the National Bureau of Ethnology that showcases Haiti's Vodou culture.
FRANCISCO SILVA: (Speaking Creole).
KAHN: This is Makaya, a Vodou spirit which we celebrate the same time of year as Christmas, he says. Makaya embodies the winter season.
SILVA: (Speaking Creole).
KAHN: "And the colors are the same as Christmas, red and green," says Silva. Green is for the Earth and red is for life. Artist Gary Francois (ph) is adding dozens of green leaves to the mural all around Makaya's red face. The eyes remain white, he says, to emphasize the spirit inside. Francois is studying at the ethnology school. It's located just across the street from the site of the former National Palace, which still hasn't been rebuilt since Haiti's devastating earthquake nearly 10 years ago.
GARY FRANCOIS: (Speaking Creole).
KAHN: He says most of his work reflects the political crisis engulfing Haiti right now. Until just a few weeks ago, he and his partner Silva couldn't have been out here so close to the scene of many street battles between police and demonstrators. Opponents of current President Jovenel Moise want him to resign. They accuse the president of massive corruption and theft - a claim Moise denies. Artist Gary Francois shows me a picture of a political mural just blocks from here, one he and Silva painted at the height of the opposition marches and riots this fall.
FRANCOIS: (Speaking Creole).
KAHN: In it, he depicts lawmakers as pigs, the president as a cat, the prime minister as a goat and the Haitian elites as sharks.
So it seems like there's a zoo in charge.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Creole).
FRANCOIS: (Speaking Creole).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So, yes, many animals manage the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KAHN: On the other side of the mural, the national Vodou dance company called 21 Nations is practicing for an upcoming New Year's Day performance. Erol Josue, director of the company and the National Bureau of Ethnology, says, sadly, this Christmas in Haiti is not joyous for many. The months of relentless protests, which claimed more than 40 lives, have taken a toll on everyone.
EROL JOSUE: It's hard. It's hard. But we working on it. We have hope.
KAHN: New Year's Day is also Haitian Independence Day, a sense of pride, he says, for everyone. It's also the day the opposition has called for protesters to return to the streets. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "STARLIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.