Producer Elisabeth (Lizzie) Bentley, the spearheading force behind director Terrence Malick’s new biopic, “A Hidden Life,” first became aware of the film’s protagonist, Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II, when her father urged her to read “In Solitary Witness,” sociologist Gordon Zahn’s biography of the unlikely and largely unknown hero. Bentley was 14 at the time.
Bentley spoke with the Journal on the phone from her home in Los Angeles and acknowledged that as a teenager she found the scholarly work a tad dry and did not complete it. Still, she was affected by Jägerstätter’s personal drama and stunning bravery. He was an uneducated, politically unaffiliated farmer who, on moral grounds, simply could not pledge his allegiance to Hitler. This resulted in his being tried, convicted of treason and finally executed in 1943.
In 2007 — the year Jägerstätter was declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church — Bentley rediscovered Zahn’s work. This time she read it cover to cover and knew it was the movie she was destined to make. Her earlier credits included producing the documentary “Nanking” (2007), about the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, and co-writing “Beautiful Darling” (2009), a biopic about Candy Darling, a transgender pioneer. But Jägerstätter had special resonance.
“He was the answer to the big question, ‘Why didn’t more people resist?’ ” she said. “Here was someone who did just that.”
In some oblique (or perhaps not so oblique) way, his story brought together the unarticulated strands of her own life: her Jewish mother, her childhood home in Cambridge, Mass., awash in Holocaust refugees and, most central, her pacifist Catholic father. Following his tour of duty in World War II, he became even more radicalized when he learned about the boats of Jewish refugees who were turned away from American shores and sent back to Germany, where those Jews perished. Bentley’s father had recently died and while she was thinking about his life and mourning his passing, she encountered the book.
“It’s a downer, the idea that Franz doesn’t get away with it and no one is saved. Still, he did the right thing and that was reason enough for me to tell his story.”
Within two years, Bentley acquired the rights to the work and another, “Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison.” The publishers were enthusiastic about the prospect of a movie. So too were German producers; Hollywood, not so much.
“There was a lot of fear,” Bentley said. “It’s a downer, the idea that Franz doesn’t get away with it and no one is saved. Still, he did the right thing and that was reason enough for me to tell his story.”
Bentley wrote an initial draft of the film and continued pitching for more than seven years until word somehow reached Malick (“Days of Heaven,” “The Tree of Life”), who was interested in making the film, at which point the investors surfaced.
“Terry has a unique sensibility in using the medium to capture spiritual truths and internal battles,” Bentley said. “His movies, not including ‘Badlands,’ catalyze experiences for viewers that are neither visible on screen nor in the dialogue.”
Set against a lush bucolic Austrian landscape, the close to three-hour film explores the inner turmoil of Franz (August Diehl), a husband and the father of three small children, who understands that his decisions will not only cost him his life but endanger the lives of his wife (Valerie Pachner) and daughters. Indeed, the family is flanked on all sides by Nazi sympathizers. Throughout, Franz is given the chance to recant his position and be freed. And repeatedly, he refuses. “A Hidden Life” is also an extraordinary love story in dramatizing a wife who fully supports her husband despite the onerous sacrifices involved.
It’s never entirely clear — and perhaps it’s a cinematic virtue — where Franz is coming from. No backstory is offered. He is simply an embodiment of a higher morality, though some might not find him all that moral in light of what it cost his family and the fact that no one else was helped in the process. Bentley loves the conversation the film evokes, though she herself has no doubt that Franz was right.
Asked how her views of Franz Jägerstätter have evolved, she admitted that early on she saw him through a rather childlike, one-dimensional lens. “Though I initially thought he was a saint, later through my research and interviews — I actually met with and corresponded with his wife — I found that he was a real human being,” Bentley recalled. “He was the father of an illegitimate child and had served time in jail for beating a man up. He was
very much a mixed bag and did not come to his conclusions easily.”
As for the language in the film — the Nazis occasionally speak German, mostly sputtering and bellowing, and German can be heard sporadically in the background — the leading characters are English-speaking. “I have no problem with that decision,” Bentley said. “I want Americans to see the film and for many, a foreign-language film would keep them away. Accessibility is the key.”
Bentley came of age in a heady world with two parents (though they separated early) who were left-leaning activists. Immersed in literature and movies of all stripes, Bentley enjoyed writing and telling stories. At Harvard, she majored in philosophy and religion, where “intellectual pursuit was valued in and of itself,” she said, before earning her master’s in filmmaking from USC.
To date, “A Hidden Life” is her most significant project, marking a major transformation in her sense of herself as she studied Franz’s journey, visited the important sites in his life and along the way spent time at Mauthausen concentration camp.
“That was not my plan, but my Austrian guides, including the editor of Franz’s letters, felt it was important that I see it,” she said. “Being there is not the same as reading about it. I had a visceral response realizing that had I been alive at the time of the Holocaust, I would have been indicated as a Jew.”
Bentley has recently formed a film production company, Marginalia, dedicated to fostering voices from the margins, which will ideally serve as a “cultural corrective,” she said.
“A Hidden Life” opens Dec. 13 at the Landmark and Arclight theaters.
Simi Horwitz is an award-winning reporter and film reviewer whose work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Film Journal International, American Theatre and the Forward, among others.