For a director once notorious for taking his sweet time between projects, the 2010s was uncharacteristically productive for Terrence Malick. While it was six years in between The New World and The Tree of Life (with his longest break being 20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), he has gone on to make five features since the release of Tree of Life in 2011, to varying degrees of critical success, with many of them taking an even looser approach to narrative than audiences were already accustomed to. His latest, however, is something that even those who may not usually enjoy the pace of Malick can find something in a film that is still long and testing, but also quite graceful and beautiful in the face of a subject matter filled with darkness and terror.
A Hidden Life focuses on Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (portrayed by August Diehl) during the Second World War. Franz leads a simple life in his small rural community with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters. When War breaks out, it is not too long before Franz and the other able-bodied men of his village are called up to fight. When told to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich, Franz refuses, landing him in prison, facing a trial and a likely death sentence. With mounting pressures from his church, family, and community, Franz is faced with a choice; stand up for his beliefs and face certain death, or bend to the will of the Reich and a regime he deems to be evil and possibly make it through the war to see his family grow.
The moral conundrum that drives A Hidden Life may be easy enough to understand in a modern context, one where we know everything there is to know about the evil measures in which Hitler and his Third Reich enforced their brutal rule. But what Malick is very careful to construct is a sense of what it might have been like to have been gripped by the hold of the Reich in a quiet part of Austria during the War, without the knowledge of the extent of the evils of the Reich, as well as not knowing just where the War was going to end up and which side the fates would favour.
In the case of Franz Jägerstätter, he chooses a different route to many of the other men in his community, and as a result, both he and his family suffer. There’s almost an arrogance to his actions and martyrdom that Malick allows to come through, meaning that A Hidden Life doesn’t just stand as a heroic account of a man holding steadfast to uphold his beliefs in the face of a regime he can see to be evil, while others are quicker to stick their heads in the sand.
What Malick is more interested in is the effect of Franz’s actions on his family and the strength shown not just by him but by his family to endure both time in prison and the judgement of their friends and family within their own community. The relationship between Franz and Franziska, so tenderly played by Diehl and Pachner, is what gives the film a heart and what grounds this more as a straight-forward narrative than other Malick works of late, with the letters between the two providing the spine of this intense but short part of their family history. The long drawn out moments of life on the farm contrasted with Franz’s imprisonment often feel stuck in a loop, seemingly taking the place over a very long time, not just months. It can mean that as an experience the film can feel a bit too drawn out and repetitive, but it certainly drives home the frustrations and force this family apart in a time of uncertainty.
This is a Terrence Malick film through and through. There are lots of long-held, landscape shots. Lots of tender close-ups of hands, figures embracing, as well as figures framed amongst nature as he has been known to do. The 170+ minute length can feel taxing, with his approach feeling a little too off the leash to truly engage at times. That said, those who love Malick will likely adore this heartfelt tale of human courage, but it is also a story that should hold enough value to offer something to those who may not usually chime with the filmmaker’s style. It explores the conflict between individual faith and the institutions that dictate how that faith should be practiced in a way that feels deeply spiritual and highly religious but also cautious and deeply compassionate to both the struggles of the Jägerstätter family and the surrounding country faced with a terrible choice. It’s a beautiful film that tells a truly compelling story, one that feels just as vital today as it did 70 years ago. Frustrating, compelling and beautiful. Now that’s Malick.
Dir: Terrence Malick
Scr: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist, Bruno Ganz
Prd: Elisabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio, Grant Hill, Josh Jeter
DOP: Jörg Widmer
Music: James Newton Howard
Runtime: 174 minutes
A Hidden Life is in UK cinemas from January 17th 2020.