Cannes 2019: A Hidden Life Review
Following the career high of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick decided to spend his most prolific filmmaking decade to date exploring uncharted regions of his own rectum. It used to be the case that every Malick film was an event for cinephiles - but after the mixed responses to the naval gazing Knight of Cups and Song to Song, two experimental inside showbiz melodramas with none of the emotional pull of his previous work, it felt like fatigue with the director’s style was finally kicking in. Three years since filming wrapped, and the film billed as his return to conventional narrative territory (by Malick’s standards, at least) has finally arrived, and the good news is that it is definitely his most accessible film from a storytelling standpoint since 2005’s The New World.
The bad news, however, is that his time spent making increasingly esoteric tone poems, devoid of narrative film conventions, has made him lose track of what constitutes a compelling screen story, and how to best tell it in his individualistic style. The tale of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who was imprisoned and later killed for his refusal to fight for the Nazis, seems like a perfect fit for the man who made The Thin Red Line, and could even be argued as being a companion piece of sorts. But A Hidden Life, Malick’s overlong biopic of the man who died for his beliefs, doesn’t dare to get to know its central figure beyond the surface - a one note character study that doesn’t dare find out about Jägerstätter beyond constantly repeating the pacifist, religious ideals that the director so clearly shares. It should be an impassioned tale of staying true to your beliefs in the face of adversity. Instead, it’s the most boring film the director has ever made.
August Diehl stars as Jägerstätter, a farmer in the Austrian town of Radegund, where he lives with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their young children. In 1940, he’s conscripted to fight in the war, where his queasiness with Hitler’s regime grows more apparent, ruffling feathers when refusing to swear allegiance to the dictator. He visits his priest only to find out that the church has become complicit in allowing the Reich’s actions to take place, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s thrown in prison for being a “traitor”, while his family are increasingly shunned by other residents of the village, who overwhelmingly support the Nazi cause.
On paper, this should be an incredibly timely story; Malick would surely see parallels to how his own Christian beliefs are being undermined by a form of religious conservatism that’s edging closer to the far right in Trump’s America. And it’s not like Malick’s poetic style has been a barrier to making people engage with meaningful messages in the past - but there’s something about the fact the film doesn’t evolve beyond its inherent message for its extensive running time that makes it something of a chore to sit through. Malick’s reverence for Jägerstätter means that he makes for a protagonist that’s difficult to make dramatically engaging. After all, when Malick firmly believes in the ideals he stands for, it makes for a lack of inner conflicts, and no sign of growth as the film progresses.
This being a Malick film, there are undeniable moments of beauty. His choices of operatic needle drops and application of James Newton Howard’s score makes even the smallest moments of family life feel transcendental, but for once, that inherent beauty isn’t matched in the visuals. Working for the first time with cinematographer Jörg Widmer, whose credits are largely in TV, Malick’s visuals this time around are mostly soaked in a grey colour palette, with one arresting image every once in a while that could be mistaken for one of Emmanuel Lubezki’s more forgettable shots in his more visually astounding recent work.