A Hidden Life, 2019.
Directed by Terrence Malick.
Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Karin Neuhauser, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz and Jürgen Prochnow.
An Austrian farmer refuses to fight for the Nazis during the Second World War, which puts his way of life under threat.
A new film from Terrence Malick is always a cause for celebration in the cinephile world. Despite the rather divisive nature of the director’s last few works, there’s a certain sense of expectation that follows when his name is above the title. His latest is A Hidden Life, which tells the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to pledge his loyalty to Adolf Hitler during the Second World War. It’s a very serious, very stately movie that unfolds over three self-consciously elegiac hours consisting of approximately one-third hefty drama, and two-thirds shots of fields.
Malick opens A Hidden Life with a tone-setting montage of newsreel footage of Hitler, set to the grandest and most bombastic strains of James Newton Howard’s orchestral score – a soundtrack for which the only direction was presumably “loud”. We then meet farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who is living an idyllic, quiet existence planting potatoes playfully while rolling around the fields with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). This all changes when the German Army comes calling, first leading to Franz and his family being ostracised by their community and then to him being imprisoned.
Your level of tolerance for A Hidden Life likely rests on your level of tolerance when it comes to Malick. His poetic, ultra-serious style of stately, thoughtful drama is not for everyone and this movie is paced in unusual fashion, seemingly losing direction in the third act at the very moment it should be focusing in and tightening the scope en route to its emotive conclusion.
Given how much screen time afforded to Diehl, it should be the case that the audience feels deeply and intimately connected to Franz, feeling his ideological struggle and getting behind him in his moral and political crusade. However, there’s something about Malick’s directorial style that places the audience at arm’s length from the character – perhaps because it keeps leaving his side to go on a gratingly-soundtracked journey around the picturesque mountains. It’s only in a pair of terrifically-played scenes later on – one involving Franz’s wife and the other with a judge, played by the late Bruno Ganz – that Malick finds the emotional heart of his story, by which point it’s a case of too little, too late.
Malick conjures a portentous tone from the start, which is somewhat undercut by the rambling structure and the on-the-nose visual imagery. One assumes that the intended effect of cacophonous thunder rumbling over the rain-drenched, formerly idyllic landscape was not to make anyone roll their eyes at the obviousness of it all. The sort of flourishes which can enrich a film over a couple of hours feel exhausted when that movie is extended seemingly into perpetuity as all of the narrative shape vanishes in the face of endless, meandering voice-over.
There are nods, however, to a more interesting argument that could’ve been made. For Franz, his decision to object and stand up is as much about protecting “the true fatherland” as it is about his own perspective. It’s telling that the real Franz has since been held up as a martyr and beatified by the Catholic church because this was about the broader message, rather than necessarily one man not wanting to fight under Hitler’s banner. There’s also an interesting sub-plot in which Franz’s wife, terrifically portrayed by Pachner, has to deal with persecution at home. Sadly, Malick is more interested in replacing insight with existentialism and doesn’t seem to care about the more grounded, human ideas at play.
There’s no denying that A Hidden Life is the work of a director with a vision and with an uncompromising idea of what his movie should feel like. Sadly, that vision doesn’t work here in telling a story that should feel more meaningful than it does. By keeping the canvas broad and deliberately sprawling, it becomes difficult to invest in the man and the family at the centre of it all. By reaching for lofty ideas that never feel within its grasp, it sacrifices its beating, human heart.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.