A Hidden Life review: Terrence Malick is self-indulgent as ever but at least there's a plot this time
A Hidden Life traces the story of unsung World War II hero Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian peasant who refused to swear his allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
castAugust Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Michael Nyqvist, Ulrich Matthes
Terrence Malick is contemporary cinema's supreme visual poet. His films are always a thing of breathtaking beauty, irrigated by ethereal landscape shots, cutaway imagery of nature, and meditative classical music. They are like sermons deeply rooted in spirituality and brimming with a metaphysical yearning.
But with his last three films (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song), Malick had slipped into self-parody in his efforts to evoke visceral responses through his visual indulgences alone — and eschewing a conventional narrative in favour of whispery voiceovers.
A Hidden Life, his new film which premiered at Cannes 2019, is fortunately more grounded in a linear narrative — and at least has a plot for starters. Malick takes us on another deeply spiritual journey, this time exploring the idea of resistance. Of course, being Malick, he stretches the film to nearly three long hours by further contemplating the majesty of nature, weaknesses of men, the meaning of life and man’s place within the vastness of the universe.
The film traces the story of unsung World War II hero Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian peasant who refused to swear his allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Set against the Alpine backdrop of St Radegund, it opens with images of Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) tending to their wheat farm on the lush mountainside. Malick indulges himself with plenty of exquisite shots of their happy bucolic life in complete harmony with nature. The camera follows Franz and Fani as they mow wheat like it were a choreographed dance and play with their three young daughters. He combines them with his typical lingering out-of-context shots of the scenic vistas, including the sky, the trees, the river streams, the rolling hills and the waterfalls.
Their Alpine paradise soon turns into a purgatory under the Nazi regime. When Franz is drafted into military service, he conscientious objects to fighting for Hitler's Germany in the war. This act of civil disobedience lands him in prison, putting his wife in an extremely difficult position as she must fend for the family and tend to their farm. Franz is vilified by the village and, to make matters worse, Fani is ostracised by her community with neighbours turning hostile towards her and her children. Malick keeps switching between the drama in the prison and the village, with repetitive scenes of the awfulness of Nazis on one side and the increasing hostility of the villagers on the other.
The more time he spends in prison, the more Franz struggles with his faith — but he refuses to give in, ready to suffer the grave consequences of his actions. While his idealism and courage sure is praiseworthy, Malick portrays Fani as an equally heroic figure, commending her resolve to go on. He presents their internal struggles and existential dilemmas through a freeform series of epistolary voiceovers.
Both Diehl and Pachner connect you to their characters in a deep, mystical way but as Malick makes them speak their lines in English, rather than in native German, it creates a bit of a jarring viewing experience.
A Hidden Life sees Malick explore his favourite themes about the importance of spirituality, showcasing how Franz and Fani's unshakable faith gives them the power to resist. The theme of resistance to fascism too is particularly relevant with the current rise in nationalist populism and white supremacist ideologies.
Though it is predictably gorgeous to look at, A Hidden Life is still a tediously long film. Malick's virtues have become his vices to the point of parody. What was previously mesmeric has now truly become exasperating.
A Hidden Life had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
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