In his final ever review, the film critic Roger Ebert said of Terrence Malick’s 2012 film ‘To the Wonder’: “There will be many who find ‘To the Wonder’ elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”
Ebert’s last assessment is in many ways applicable to Malick’s most recent film ‘A Hidden Life’. Remaining one of the most elusive living filmmakers, his work has often been praised for its unique visual style and cinematography, yet many have also found his films slow and pretentious. A filmmaker who inspires wonder and enlightenment in admirers but boredom and frustration amongst detractors, his work is sometimes capable of testing the patience of even the biggest of fans.
At a first glance, Malick’s previous films such as ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ for me felt visually arresting, yet oddly cold and somewhat boring. His excessive focus on jump-cutting meant that many of his scenes appeared more like incomplete fragments rather than a coherent narrative thread. The narration was often self-indulgent, attempting to grasp on weighty themes but in the end coming across as shallow. With time though, what used to be fragments became reminiscent of someone recounting their deepest memories. His narration took on a new meaning, dealing with existential themes that enlightened and stuck with me long after. Whilst films with more conventional narratives are similar to novels in their storytelling, Malick’s work feels more like a poem. For his new work ‘A Hidden Life’, Malick has created one of his most lyrical works to date.
Set during World War II, ‘A Hidden Life’ focuses on Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who lives an idyllic existence with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their children on their farm in the town of St. Radegund. Jägerstätter is called to fight, but cannot bring himself to join the war effort since doing so would force him to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler, something he feels would be contrary to his Catholic beliefs. Both the church and his community turn their back on him, leaving Jägerstätter to deal with this moral conflict alone, along with the dilemma as to whether he should stick to his religion or leave his family without a father/husband.
The plight of a man standing by his principles when facing one of history’s greatest evils is an extremely compelling theme and Malick brings it to life eloquently, displaying his own conflict with faith through Jägerstätter’s. Not unlike Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ which conveys the same message of sticking to one’s faith despite all odds, ‘A Hidden Life’ is less focused on the Nazi atrocities and more of a man dealing with his principles. It is an incredible tribute to the act of courage, and actively argues that while one man cannot change the course of history, he can choose to live on the right side of it. Franz’s struggles have echoes of the Christ he so ardently serves: he is passive and loving but is forced to deal with a moral conflict that will potentially result in his execution.
Much like ‘The Thin Red Line’, Malick focuses on a tranquil existence, disturbed by the advent of war and evil. His love of nature is on full display with magnificent shots of the Austrian landscape. The locations, especially Franz’s town of St. Radegund are staggeringly beautiful, and are shot with grace by Malick and director of photography Jorg Widmer. The camera moves with an improvisational flow, creating a documentary like feel at points. No shot feels planned with Malick, which adds to the human quality the film strives for. We wander onto these characters as though by chance, capturing individual moments of memory. Despite its historical setting, the film feels as timeless as the themes Malick tackles.
‘A Hidden Life’ might feel too disjointed, and one wonders if a more traditional narrative form wouldn’t enhance Jägerstätter’s story as opposed to Malick’s trademark editing style. For some, it might feel like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. For me, it is a beautiful mosaic, perhaps his most human film since ‘The Tree of Life’. He captures emotion in a way few filmmakers can, often focusing on expression rather than dialogue. The characters may speak less, but their emotion is conveyed beautifully through the words they cannot bring themselves to say, a huge testament to the performances of Diehl and Pachner. Although some sections seem too padded out – the film runs at nearly three hours – by the end I had fallen so in love with the characters and their world that I didn’t want it to end, and its heart-breaking final moments stuck with me. At the age of 76, Malick remains one of the most exciting and unique directors alive, capable of inciting an emotional response from me like no other filmmaker can. If one film is to convince Malick’s detractors though, it is certainly not this one, despite its more conventional structure. However, for his devotees, ‘A Hidden Life’ continues and adds to Malick’s history of masterpieces.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Deputy Film Editor