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August Diehl
August Diehl

CANNES: The star of a heart-wrenching true story about an Austrian anti-Nazi martyr executed during World War II said on Monday he hoped the film would inspire people to “stand up” against the resurgent far right.

“A Hidden Life” by Hollywood director Terrence Malick — which premiered at the Cannes film festival — tells the story of Austrian farmer Franz Jaegerstaetter, who chose in 1943 to be guillotined rather than pledge his allegiance to Hitler.

He is played in the near three-hour epic by August Diehl, one of Germany’s top film stars, who said the movie’s example of resistance in the face of rising radicalism had become bracingly relevant.

“It is actually time to stand up against all this right-wing development in Europe — it’s going a very wrong way. We have all our private choices to make and how to handle this,” he told reporters.

Asked about European elections this week in which the extreme right is expected to make further inroads, Diehl added: “Our voice counts — each voice, I think.” The film shows how Jaegerstaetter’s home village Sankt Radegund near the German border falls under Hitler’s sway as its mayor rails against “foreigners” and “traitors” keeping Austria down.

When Jaegerstaetter, a modest and religious family man, is called up to serve in the army when war breaks out, he rejects the cause as “evil” and refuses to take the oath to the Nazi leader. He is imprisoned, beaten and tortured and repeatedly told that if he will simply sign the pledge, he can go free and return to his wife Fani and three young daughters.

The family, left alone, suffers harassment from the other villagers over Jaegerstaetter’s stance and struggles to maintain the farm.

Jaegerstaetter was finally taken to Berlin for trial where he exchanged a series of anguished letters with Fani which formed the basis of the screenplay.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2019