In Theaters

How aware are we of our existence? We may think we have a good handle on it, but do we really? Sometimes we need a “reality check,” where we’re thrown into a scenario that gives us a greater and more mindful appreciation of the realm in which we find ourselves. That can be a rude awakening, for sure, as a pair of young soldiers discover for themselves in the new wartime drama, “1917” (web site, trailer).

With the brutal combat of World War I stuck in a virtual stalemate between opposing British and German forces on the ravaged French landscape, it appeared as though the woefully deadlocked battle would rage on in perpetuity unless some kind of significant break in the impasse occurred. Yet, as unlikely as that possibility began to seem, in April 1917, it looked as though just such a development was starting to emerge. German troops began what appeared to be a retreat, leading British forces to believe that their enemy was at last on the run, opening up an opportunity for an assault that would give them the upper hand. There was just one problem with that assessment: British military intelligence learned that the alleged German retreat was a ruse to trap the advancing British soldiers, leaving front-line forces vulnerable, for all practical purposes, to a battlefield massacre. And, since the German troops cut the communications lines in their withdrawal, there was no way to warn Allied forces of what they were up against.

Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay, center) desperately seeks to deliver a warning to the commander of British troops being set up for a trap by German forces in the compelling new World War I drama, “1917.” Photo by François Duhamel, courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

To prevent a disaster, British Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) commissioned two of his soldiers, Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), to traverse the battle-scarred countryside to deliver a warning to Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), commander of the front-line troops. The young recruits were thus charged with embarking on a dangerous journey to be carried out on a tight time frame. And, with the lives of 1,600 British soldiers at stake, including the older brother of one of the messengers, Lt. Joseph Blake (Richard Madden), success was absolutely crucial.

Under harrowing conditions, the two young soldiers thus begin their arduous journey. Along the way, they encounter all manner of battlefield horrors, including countless unburied decaying corpses, packs of enormous ravenous rodents, booby-trapped bunkers and relentless enemy snipers. They also witness disasters, such as a tragic biplane crash and a village set ablaze whose burning buildings resemble the gates of hell. To be sure, there are allies to be had, too, such as a convoy of British troops led by wise and compassionate Capt. Smith (Mark Strong), who offers profoundly insightful advice about delivering the warning if the messengers indeed succeed in their task. But, even with such assistance, the journey is a race against time – and tragedy – to prevent an even greater calamity from happening.

Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay, right) and Lance Cpl. Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, left) cross battle-ravaged France to deliver a message to their fellow British troops in director Sam Mendes’s latest offering, “1917.” Photo by François Duhamel, courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

“1917” is an intriguing film in a number of ways, both in terms of its face value messages, as well as its deeper, metaphysical meaning, qualities conveyed both by the picture’s narrative and its approach in telling that story. Both are accomplished by a common root, the beliefs that made it all possible, both in the minds of the characters in the script and in the imagination of the filmmakers. And, in each case, these accomplishments are attained thanks to the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these powerful metaphysical tools in manifesting the reality experienced both in the lives of the characters on the screen and in the minds of audience members viewing their story as it plays out.

One of the key themes in this picture is its depiction of the hell of warfare, and drawing upon World War I to do that is an intriguing choice. Given that it was essentially the first modern conflict, it represented the first time that new types of weapons capable of inflicting horrific damage were used. In many ways, it wasn’t clear just how destructive they could be until they were actually deployed, and this war provided that opportunity. It showed us, for better or worse, just how deadly and devastating they could be, something that began to open eyes about where the practice of warfare could be headed. Instead of being celebrated as a grand adventure for young, impressionable, naïve youth, war was, likely for the first time, beginning to be seen as the atrocity it is. And this film, while graphic but not gratuitous, depicts that for viewers, particularly those who may have gone into the theater believing otherwise.

This is by no means meant to denigrate the heroism of the courageous soldiers who went off to war to fight what they believed was a noble cause. The efforts of the brave young corporals to relay their message under harrowing circumstances is by all means something to be saluted, even if the film’s larger message is designed to get us to question the wisdom of how we end up getting ourselves into situations where we need to tackle tasks like this in the first place. From the characters’ perspective, we get to see their beliefs laid out before them in the reality they experience, offering them glimpses of the nobility they cling to, as well as the sheer terror that accompanies this scenario. And, from a filmmaker’s perspective, given this complex and contradictory mixture of influences involved here, seamlessly blending them into a single narrative requires striking a delicate balance that shows the validity of each set of beliefs and what they ended up manifesting.

British Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth, center) commissions two of his troops to deliver a warning to his front-line troops being set up for a trap by German forces in the compelling new World War I drama, “1917.” Photo by François Duhamel, courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Which is where the creator’s astutely insightful storytelling techniques for this tale come into play. Director Sam Mendes, with the collaboration of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, filmed “1917” as if it were one long, continuous shot. By filming the picture in this way, the audience is with the protagonists for the entire movie, always by their side, as if viewers were vicariously part of the narrative. In fact, the only way one can realistically get away from the story would be to get up and leave the theater.

By shooting the film in this way, Mendes gives viewers a front-row seat to the action, an in-your-face way of letting the audience in on the perils that the protagonists face. It’s a technique that effectively enhances the themes of heroism and horror that the picture conveys to those watching it. In many regards, it makes the story seem more “real” than if it were told using more conventional filming techniques, making the experience more “personal” for the viewer, something that I believe is critical to depicting exactly what constitutes the wartime experience – and makes us think twice about why we would intentionally create circumstances consisting of such conditions in the first place.

Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay) enters a French town set ablaze by allegedly retreating German troops, creating a scene resembling the gates of hell, in the compelling new World War I drama, “1917.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

On an even more metaphysically fundamental level, “1917” not only drives home the reality of the wartime experience, but it also makes reality in general seem more “real” than movies or other visual media produced with more traditional practices. On a philosophically instructional level, that makes this a truly important film, one that clearly depicts “the reality of reality.” In an age where it’s easy for us to tune out and lose touch with what’s going on around us, “1917” helps to increase our awareness of the existence that surrounds us, intrinsically connecting us and making apparent what role we play within it. That’s quite an accomplishment for a film that superficially would seem to be just telling us a war story, a quality that really allows it to make its mark in the world of cinema.

Despite a somewhat slow beginning, this otherwise-gripping tale somewhat reminiscent of “Gallipoli” (1981) takes viewers on a first-person journey through battle-ravaged Europe. By bringing the war to the front row of the theater, audiences get to experience the terror of the conflict through a story capable of genuinely frightening viewers better than any of the best horror flicks on the market. The fine lead performances of MacKay and Chapman, along with Deakins’s stunning photography, Thomas Newman’s riveting score and Mendes’s expert direction, combine to make this truly one of the year’s best offerings. The effect may leave viewers feeling a bit claustrophobic and shell-shocked at times, but then that’s a sure sign the filmmakers have done their job.

Getting a warning to British Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, right) in time to prevent a battlefield massacre is the assignment given to Lance Cpl. William Schofield (George MacKay, left) in the highly decorated World War I drama, “1917.” Photo by François Duhamel, courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

“1917” has been lavishly praised in this year’s awards competitions. The National Board of Review named it one of 2019’s Top 10 films and bestowed a special achievement award to Deakins for outstanding cinematography. At the Golden Globes, the film won awards for best dramatic picture and best director, along with a nomination for best score. In the Critics Choice Award contest, “1917” took home honors for best director (tied with Bong Joon Ho for “Parasite”), cinematography and editing, as well as five additional nominations, including best picture. In upcoming competitions, the film has earned nine nominations in the BAFTA Awards, including best picture and director, and 10 Oscar nods, including best picture, director and original screenplay. That’s quite a haul for a truly impressive picture.

In an age where we find our senses being increasingly dulled by all sorts of distractions, it can be easy to lose track of what constitutes our reality. It’s a practice we engage in at our peril, for, if we lose sight of our existence, we may eventually lose sight of ourselves, wandering about lost in a reality where we have no connection to our surroundings, how they arose or how we got there. Films like “1917” help to shake us out of that complacency, waking us up to what’s going on and forcing us to become aware of how we respond to it. Ideally, it would probably be better to not have to be pushed into such circumstances, but, just in case we need a potent reminder, we have examples such as this to wake us up – and to keep us from drifting off into scenarios we’d much rather avoid.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Listening to Our Heart

Following our conscience often poses us with some of the most potent dilemmas we will encounter during our lifetimes. Such situations force us to confront doing what we believe to be the right thing in the face of circumstances that would seek to compel us to respond otherwise. The effect may be confounding, perhaps even paralyzing, but it generally pushes us to follow our hearts and minds, to address our innermost beliefs in being true to ourselves. So it was for a mild-mannered everyman saddled with dire conditions in the new fact-based historical drama, “A Hidden Life” (web site, trailer).

In the idyllic mountain village of St. Radegrund, Austria, the horrors of World War II seem a world away. In fact, it’s the perfect setting for peasant farmer Franz Jãgerstãtter (August Diehl) to live out the life of peace and contentment that he so fervidly loves. With his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters (Ida Mutschlechner, Maria Weger, Aennie Lade), Franz carves out a modest but comfortable living, eventually inviting his mother, Rosalie (Karin Neuhäuser), and Fani’s sister, Resie (Maria Simon), to come live with them. Together they all share good relations with their neighbors in this tightly knit community, and they derive ample solace from their involvement with the local Roman Catholic parish under the guidance of Father Fürthauer (Tobias Moretti). It’s an existence that gives them everything they need.

Peasant farmer Franz Jãgerstãtter (August Diehl) enjoys an idyllic life in the mountain village of St. Radegrund, Austria in spite of the ravages of World War II hanging over him and his family in the new fact-based historical drama, “A Hidden Life.” Photo by Reiner Bajo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Unfortunately, the outside world unavoidably intrudes upon their way of life. With Austria under the control of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, all eligible men are called upon to partake in basic military training. Franz initially resists the idea, but he eventually relents, fulfilling his civic obligation. However, upon word of France’s surrender, with many believing that the war will be over soon, Franz is sent back home, hoping his duty is behind him and giving him encouragement that he can return to a normal life permanently. But, as quickly becomes apparent, the war is far from over, and Franz is called up for military service.

Franz is more troubled about serving as a soldier than he was about going through basic training. The reason: He’s unwilling to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich that all new recruits are required to make. When he considers what the Nazis have done to the German people and the residents of neighboring countries, he can’t bring himself to pledge his loyalty to a regime whose policies and practices he fundamentally disagrees with. He’s sincere about his opposition, and, to demonstrate his reluctance, he even goes so far as to consult the head of the local diocese, Bishop Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist), for advice. However, in doing so, Franz doesn’t get the answer he expects; rather than the Bishop telling him he should follow his conscience, he’s told that he has a duty to the Fatherland that he must honor lest his loyalty be called into question.

What’s more, when word of Franz’s hesitancy to pledge his allegiance spreads throughout St. Radegrund, he’s labeled a traitor. He and his family are demonstrably ostracized by most community residents, and the town’s mayor (Karl Markovics) openly chastises Franz for his disloyalty. As Franz wrestles with his decision, life at home becomes increasingly difficult for everyone.

Farmer Franz Jãgerstãtter (August Diehl, center) and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner, right), derive tremendous faith from their Roman Catholic parish in the face of perils threatening to destroy their peaceful existence in World War II Austria in writer-director Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” Photo by Reiner Bajo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

After considerable soul-searching, Franz finally decides to report for duty, much to Fani’s dismay. He believes he must fulfill his obligation. But, despite this sense of responsibility to his country, he has no intention of taking the oath, honoring his responsibility to himself. And, when he follows through on this intention, he’s thrown in jail, first in a holding facility in Enns and then later in a prison in Berlin.

While awaiting trial for his “crime,” Franz is subjected to all manner of brutality at the hands of prison guards, not to mention the harsh living conditions of this new existence. His only source of comfort throughout this ordeal is his ability to exchange letters with Fani. His love for his wife fills him with the strength he needs to carry on, a feeling that she likewise draws upon to keep up with the demands of running the farm. But, as time passes, Franz’s prospects look progressively bleak as he holds fast to his decision.

When the time for Franz’s trial comes, his lawyer (Alexander Fehling) urges him to take the oath, given that it will almost assuredly result in dismissal of the charges against him. In fact, given the looming consequences, Franz’s attorney tries to convince him to take this step even if he doesn’t mean what he says. But Franz remains resolute, knowing that a lie would be a betrayal to himself on par with the repulsion he would feel for actually taking the oath. And so he places conscience before coercion, a decision that leaves him in a precarious position and facing an uncertain future, one whose impact is certain to affect both Franz and everyone he loves.

Difficult situations such as this test the resolve of even the strongest among us. These kinds of circumstances pit us against ourselves, most notably our innermost beliefs, scenarios that can carry significant consequences. The importance in this rests with the fact that our responses to such challenges ultimately affect what we experience. And that’s because our beliefs shape the reality in which we find ourselves.

Austrian farmer Franz Jãgerstãtter (August Diehl, right) puts up a brave front as he bids farewell to his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner, left), as he leaves his mountain village to fulfill military obligations during World War II in “A Hidden Life.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Franz has indeed set himself up for quite a test through his experience. As an openly conscientious objector – something virtually unheard of in his day and age – he places his personal beliefs before those of what’s expected of him. And, even though he ends up reporting for duty, he can’t bring himself to take the next step, one that he believes in his heart is wrong, despite the consequences involved.

Franz’s actions are significant for a variety of reasons. Not only are they an act of defiance to circumstances with which he fundamentally disagrees, but they are also a shining example of the principle of integrity. When we embrace this principle, we approach our lives with a heightened sense of personal earnestness, a quality that reflects the sincerity of our being, something that enables us to be supremely truthful with ourselves. And that, in turn, allows us to experience a reality most in line with what we genuinely believe, one that most faithfully aligns with our innate heartfelt convictions.

Given what Franz adheres to, he truly faces quite an arduous path going forward. However, the beliefs behind these developments mirror who he really is. As becomes apparent in the film, he’s a devout man of faith who staunchly abides by his principles. If he’s to live with himself, he knows he must follow his heart, no matter how difficult his personal odyssey might be. He simply can’t capitulate to the mentality of being someone who’s “just following orders.” By maintaining his sense of integrity, he significantly increases the likelihood that his reality will fall into line with his beliefs, no matter what that may entail.

Some might question the wisdom of Franz’s beliefs and actions in light of the consequences he faces. However, perhaps one of his missions in life is to set an example for others, to become a prototype for the conscientious objector model, something that no one may have done before (or at least not as openly as he does). It could be that a sentiment like the one expressed by Franz may play a vital role in helping to reshape a culture predicated on war and violence, especially if enough other individuals follow his lead. But, if the example he sets is to catch on, it has to start somewhere with someone, and maybe that’s where Franz comes in as a volunteer willing to establish the standard and make it known to the world, perilous though that course may be.

Conscientious objector Franz Jãgerstãtter (August Diehl, right) faces the brutality of prison life when he refuses to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich as part of his military service during World War II in the new fact-based historic drama, “A Hidden Life.” Photo by Reiner Bajo, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Charting such unknown territory requires a great deal of courage, and that’s another element that factors into Franz’s beliefs. By being willing to confront his fears, he gives himself the personal strength and fortitude he needs to follow this path. By fortifying himself in this way, Franz further increases the chances of being able to fulfill his aspirations and achieve something that the world has never seen before. That’s especially crucial for ventures that stand to benefit us all, both individually and collectively.

While writer-director Terrence Malick’s stream of consciousness style of filmmaking may not be for everyone, he certainly presents his best example of this kind of work in his latest offering. As with nearly all of his pictures (which are known for including beautiful imagery for its own sake and not necessarily as a means for moving the story FORWARD), this release could still use some judicious editing, considering its nearly three-hour runtime. However, given that this fact-based film features a more narrative-driven focus than some of his other works, that change, coupled with his signature style, make for a moving combination, one that’s simultaneously touching and beautiful to look at. August Diehl and Valerie Pachner give quietly impassioned performances as protagonists wrestling with crises of conscience in World War II Austria, set against the beauty of their native countryside and the ugliness of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Admittedly, this picture may try the patience of even the most diehard moviegoer, but it’s worth sitting through even the slow passages given the rewards on offer.

“A Hidden Life” entered awards season with high hopes of significant recognition after winning the François Chalais Award and receiving a distinguished Palme d’Or nomination at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. However, once the contenders in year-end competitions were announced, the picture didn’t live up to expectations. While the release was named one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 Independent Films, its only other recognition came in the form of an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best feature. Considering that the crop of eligible 2019 releases left something to be desired, it’s unfortunate that this offering was summarily excluded from so many award programs.

When faced with a perilous fate for her imprisoned husband, Fani Jãgerstãtter (Valerie Pachner, center) travels to Berlin from her Austrian mountain village to provide much-needed comfort and strength in Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

It would be quite a world to live in if we were to have more individuals like Franz in our midst. Indeed, if we had just one courageous soul like him for every 10 others who believed and acted contrarily, our society and the greater reality of which it’s a part would likely be a very different place. That’s why it’s so important that the inspiring stories of heroes like this humble Austrian farmer are shared with the world, to provide us with examples of how to live differently than how we’re told, to bring about an existence in which we’re truthful with ourselves and courageously fulfill our intents to live lives in line with our hearts. It’s a possibility, to be sure, but it’s up to us to envision such an existence – and then to take the steps necessary to make it happen.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Looking Back at 2019

What were my favorite – and least favorite – movies of the past 12 months? Find out by reading my new blog post, “The Best – and Worst – of 2019,” available by clicking here. In it you’ll find my Top 10 and Bottom 10 movies of the year, along with my Honorable Mentions (and Dishonorable Mentions), as well as some other Noteworthy Favorites. A separate blog covering my favorite documentaries of the year is also in the works and will be available in the near future.

And, with awards season in full swing, be sure to check out my upcoming blog and radio appearances featuring my predictions for this year’s Oscar winners in the top six categories (best picture, actor, actress, director, supporting actor and supporting actress), all coming soon!

Copyright © 2019-20, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.