There is no denying that writer/director Terrence Malick has created some of the most evocative and moving films in history, since his earliest works Badlands and Days of Heaven. He hit a creative and emotional high point with 2011’s The Tree of Life, but I’ll admit that everything that followed that landmark work (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song) has felt substandard—more like a filmmaker attempting to recapture the formula that made that film great, when part of the reason it was so significant is that it followed no formula.
But his latest, A Hidden Life, isn’t so much a return to form as it is an acknowledgment by Malick that sometimes working in a more structured format (in this case, a based-on-true-events story) is the best way to regain one’s cinematic mojo. The film centers on Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, Inglourious Basterds), a hard-working, patriotic Austrian farmer who refused to join the Nazi Party or fight for the Germans in World War II because he wouldn’t swear an allegiance to Hitler. Franz lives in a stunning mountain village with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner, The Ground Beneath My Feet), and children, but when most of the men from the village are conscripted, he simply can’t align himself, even though it likely will mean his death if he doesn’t.
He says he will happily work in a medical capacity, helping injured soldiers, but the idea of killing for such a cause was more than he could stomach. Franz and especially his family are tormented by the locals, who call them traitors and refuse to do business with their farm, thus driving them into poverty and starvation. Malick uses the tools of his trade, including having his camera move behind or next to his subjects, often of fields of wheat or tall grass. The nature that envelops the village is as much a part of these characters as their morals and spirit, so the director’s celebration of it feels appropriate.
We are also treated to flashbacks of how Franz and Fani met, feel in love and got married, and it adds wonderfully to our affection for these characters and their fates. Their love is undeniable, and it makes their suffering all the more crushing. Malick peppers in key supporting roles to a host of familiar faces, including Matthias Schoenaerts as a seemingly sympathetic German captain; Bruno Ganz as a judge in Franz’s treason trial; and the late Michael Nyqvist, who died two-and-a-half years ago, which gives you some idea of how long Malick takes to edit his films. It’s a fitting final screen appearance from a talented actor in his prime.
A Hidden Life is something of an ascension for Malick, tapping into that one thing in all of us that is our tipping point—the one thing we just can’t compromise in ourselves, even if it means life would be easier if we did. Throughout Franz’s incarceration and trial, we assume that common sense and decency will step in to stop this absurd process. But this would be a very different type of movie if that happened, and Malick doesn’t dally in such forms of storytelling. He wants us to live this experience along with his characters; he wants us inhabiting their bodies by the time the story is all told, and after a three-hour running time, that isn’t as far fetched as it might sound. Of course the film is a bit too long, but when you’re telling a story about endurance and waiting, it feels very manageable as a movie-going experience.
Franz’s story is heroic, but he isn’t portrayed like a hero. He simply wants to live a life that he doesn’t have to deny or be embarrassed by in front of his children when they grow older. He wants his wife to be proud of him, but he’d rather she do so while he’s alive. Malick is a master at putting us through the emotional wringer that is the world around us, and A Hidden Life does so with grace, dignity and a supreme understanding of the beauty of defiance.
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