A Hidden Life (2019)
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz
Terrence Malick, the divisive Palme d’Or winning filmmaker known for his nearly 50 years of deeply philosophical poetic undertakings and other-worldly visual journeys, returns to the more formal form of film narrative apparent in his earlier works Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line for his most accessible and instantly recognisable work in years, his new World War II drama about an Austrian man’s refusal to bear arms for the Nazi regime seeming to mark the end of the screenwriter-director’s recent venture into the avante-garde with the likes of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, though not for a second losing touch of the deeply religious overtones that have become a trademark of his work nor the ethereal nature of his experimental visual design.
Starring the unforgettable August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds; The Emperor of Paris) as the real-life Franz Jägerstätter, a man who brought great stress and anguish upon himself and his family when he refused to fight on behalf of the Nazis in World War II, Malick’s careful handling and nurtured unravelling of the spiritual and moral forces at work in both Jägerstätter’s life and, as implied, our world as a whole, paint a picture of righteousness as the overwhelming force on planet earth, the almost faceless evil of the Nazi regime being one that is bound by time and exclusively to man, the world moving forward, growing and evolving regardless, the mountainous setting of Austria being an ever-present reminder of how temporary each of our lives, concerns and indeed conflicts are, but how significant and long-lasting the effects of each of our decisions can be.
Much like in The Thin Red Line, Malick’s other war-time adaptation, A Hidden Life is unafraid to be less concerned with the violence of the time in favour of a more personal and familial narrative focused upon higher meaning regarding the purpose of one’s life and any hope for a great beyond. Like his 1998 release, this film (being released some 20-plus years later) slows down where other films may accelerate, it focuses upon deeper meaning rather than offering simple narrative conclusions and it feels as if presenting the actions of the piece through an all-seeing eye, only this time one with less of an expressively concerned (erratic in the physical sense) nature. Unlike The Thin Red Line, A Hidden Life is less intent on undergoing the philosophical undertaking of questioning who is right or who is wrong in the war, establishing the Nazis as absolutely in the wrong from very early on as the film’s hero battles with a moral and religious task akin to a modern saint.
August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter in A Hidden Life.
More than asking “what is right about war?”, Malick asks “what would you do in this situation?” and he explores every aspect of that question intricately, from multiple perspectives and with his now trademarked visual beauty. The settings are simply magnificent – enough to rival the greats like The Sound of Music or Lawrence of Arabia – and the actors are some of the most photographable in all of modern cinema, their performances accentuating the director’s desire to tell much more of the film through a visual narrative as opposed to a dialogue-driven one. As seems to always be the case with a Malick movie, everyone in front of and behind the camera seems endlessly engaged and totally immersed in the roles they are fulfilling and the world they are presenting; Diehl in particular offers a simply astonishing performance that Malick trusts to anchor the movie in ways he hasn’t trusted a performance since arguably that of Colin Farrell in The New World (2005).
The comparisons to the great works of David Lean don’t stop at the beautiful settings however, Malick’s work running for as long as the great director’s Doctor Zhivago or above-mentioned Lawrence of Arabia and promising a similarly as meaningful journey. A Hidden Life in this respect feels like the epics of an age long gone, but unlike the genre’s best, does require a patience with its laboured means of storytelling that may prove to be jarring to the uninitiated. A Hidden Life is an experience best examined after seeing the film as opposed to during, and may prove to be too long for those better accustomed to 90-minute run-times.
In A Hidden Life, we have seen the return of a filmmaker from the avante-garde abyss that has moulded him from legendary philosophical filmmaker to a divisive figure labelled by some as one of the very best to ever create cinema and by others as a pretentious filmmaker on the cusp of insanity. Malick, in combining elements of both his more narratively stable work from earlier in his career and some of the visual motifs of his later ouevre, has brought us a film that will not be liked by everyone but will remain watchable in the next 10, 20, 50 or 100 years, the timeless beauty of its imagery and universal nature of its narrative likely to remain impactful and indeed watchable throughout all of the changes to cinema that are left to come. It’s not that A Hidden Life is a classic, but it is proof of a version of cinema we are becoming less and less accustomed to, an at-face-value piece of effortless cinematic poetry that provides another unique and truly Malickian film experience.