What would you do if you had to choose between your family and your country?

This is the central question of the latest film from writer/director Terrence Malick, "A Hidden Life." Documenting the life of a farming couple in Austria during World War II, Franz (August Diehl) is posed the question of putting his faith in the insurgent Nazi German leadership and pledge his allegiance to Adolf Hitler. When Franz declines, life in their small town becomes more difficult for him and his family, including his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner) as what used to be a quiant and quiet village becomes entangled in Nazi propaganda. As it becomes more and more difficult to hold onto his choice, Franz is led deeper into the Nazi system and eventually ends up on trial in Berlin for his insubordination.

Pachner is one of 13 SCAD Savannah Film Festival honorees for her performance as Franziska, and spoke with Do Savannah over the phone about preparing for the film, what it was like to work with director Terrence Malick and the lessons she took away from the story of this woman and her family.

 

Q: Terrence Malick, who wrote and directed the film, is known for having a unique process. What did you takeaway from working with him on set?

Pachner: "The most important thing from the beginning were the letters that were the original letters (from the couple). Those already gave a really good base for the character in preparation (for the role) because within the letters you can already feel, the way (this couple) live — you can feel their love, you can also get to know a lot about their work, (and) how their everyday life was. And then I think it was really sort of incredible how the way Terry (Malick) works. You really sort of open up a world because since you could go into every corner of the farm, you could really use the farm as a playground. There was never like a place where I know you can't go there because there's like a bunch of cables lying around at some things. It really felt like a vast open space where you can just dive into.

Also, the way (Malick) uses this wide angle with the camera, you can also really move within the frame very freely and also (you have) Terry (Malick) encouraging you to really bring in your own ideas and your own vision of the character really, really allowed me to think about her and go beyond the script and go beyond what I know about her and really question myself — What do I think was important for her? What was she going through? And those things were not written in the script, but that was something that, like, I think in the second week, I sort of wrote down what I thought the journey she's going through, and I just sent it to Terry (Malick) and he really picked it up and it really was like, 'Okay, let's improvise with this...let's try out some of those stages, let's just confront August with it without him knowing at what stage of your journey you are (at). And so this really made me forget about thinking about the script, it made me forget thinking about rules of the character that you might have as an actress and really start living her life (and) living the character, and that was really quite wonderful. I think that was really sort of also mind opening in the sense of like, concerning my work as an actress, because I really forget about all this technical things because at some point, it was really more like we were those characters because we did all this farm work all day. So we were basically just doing farm work and being farmers, and working on the field and it was almost like we were talking to each other like have you already milked the cow today? It was really more like we started to live their life in a way."

Q: I can tell that through the performance — it's so internal. Was that something you found through the preparation process?

Pachner: Oh, that's wonderful to hear because I think that's really how we felt. I think it's also sort of happened. I think it wasn't really planned that this would turn out the way I think. Or at least I didn't, you know? Because we were all so dedicated to the story. I think we were all pretty moved by the story itself, right from the beginning on at least when I read the letters. I already had to cry and there's something about them that is just sort of, you know, feels so great. What those two did...like, in a way I felt like I just want to dedicate myself to this greatness — a sort of state of being where they were at and not really think about myself anymore at all and just be sort of like an advocate to her. Maybe that's how you just started to, as you said, you just started to, like, really, fully get filled up with all this sort of being and thinking and feeling and, and really getting into that place where what they must have been at. It sort of gets bigger than themselves and I think that's where you realize that there's something going on inside of yourself. That feeling...it's kind of new, you know, and maybe that shows in the picture as well. I don't know.

Q: When had to transition back into real life did the lessons you learned from this couple transition back with you?

Pachner: I mean, of course. It's always you feel kind of blunt, saying that, you know, you feel well, of course. I didn't go through what they did, so I will never know. But of course, (we) do it throughout the shoot, and you know acting sort of has to do with really trying to get close to those ideas and trying to really add sort of understand and get close to that. And I have to say, yes — that it really sort of it did change me. I think it's sort of also opened inside of me this feeling of I'm not challenged in that way that they are, but I always tried to connect to this feeling of what I think is right and sort of continue that path in a way.

So, I don't have to take this sort of crazy path or like this crazy, big decision and very severe decision that they had to do, luckily. But, I do feel like in everyday life, and even if it's not that extraordinary, and that's what the film is talking about that it really comes down to the decisions we take, even if they're as simple as they can be. What it also said in the end that this is very important to be connected to this inner feeling of what you think is right. And I think that's what the film is sort of talking about and what I also felt for myself.

I thought I might have learned that lesson, especially when the world is so loud and there's so much going on and so much buzzing, so much talking...I feel like it's very important, like come to this place of quiet, what I felt what they must have had, they must have felt this place of quiet and in within displays of quiet and yourself is where this feeling of what is right is daring, I think. And I feel like it's very important to connect to this feeling now.

Q: Yes, that place of quiet helps you find your conviction but also allows you to think of what is best for you and your family.

Pachner: Exactly. And I think what is so wonderful about this film is that you see that it doesn't have to be the wisest, most intellectual decision. Something that very simple, humble people with a simple life can (make it). It doesn't take like, you don't have to have a doctor's degree or whatever. This is not about that and that's what I also like that it doesn't exclude anyone. It's just a very humane and simple stand or decision.