A Hidden Life Review
There’s a frustrating contradiction at the heart of Terrence Malick’s new film, which follows the life of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) during World War II. It’s a story of heartfelt moral and religious righteousness, with a central, burning belief in the absolute goodness of man. It is beautifully shot, contains a handful of the most evocative moments we’ve seen in cinema this year, and has a pure antifascist message that could not be more timely without Malick beaming the film backwards through time to 1939. Unfortunately, it is also insufferably repetitive, features an entirely one-note central performance and - for most of its 173 minutes - reads like a parody of Malick’s worst traits.
Let’s start where the film opens: titles and production company credits play in white text over a black screen as the sounds of nature slowly fade up to a hazy background mish-mash of birds, wind and rustling branches. A hushed voiceover (Valerie Pachner as Jägerstätter’s wife, Franziska) then enters the soundscape, placed nonchalantly over a stunning montage of the Austrian countryside. Though Malick’s usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki is absent, Jörg Widmer’s photography lays a new claim to that magic midpoint between stock footage and spontaneous natural art.
In what would be a vengeance-inspiring origins story in any other film, Franz is plucked from his bucolic existence after resisting the sway of Hitler’s call to arms. He is taken off to prison while his wife, mother and three children are left to fend for themselves against hostile neighbours. Intimate conversations are spoken in English while the periphery is German, untranslated - you don’t need subtitles to understand the insults that are hurled. When Franz refuses to salute the führer, the local mayor exclaims “You are worse than them: you are a traitor!”
The narrative is then bifurcated between Franz’ time in prison cells (extended scenes of largely silent torment) and Franziska attempting to maintain a life on the farm (extended scenes of miserable scything). And all of it laden with narration from husband and wife, in letters and disconnected monologues hammering home the same ponderous, repetitive tract on the nature of evil. One could almost see A Hidden Life as an extension of themes from The Thin Red Line (though any and all gunfire here is entirely off-screen). While nature in Thin Red Line continued unabated despite man’s savagery, the wildlife and weather seem to actively push back here: the Jägerstätter’s well runs dry, and the cattle are noncompliant.
These musings would be a lot easier to take seriously if we hadn’t heard them a thousand times before in Malick’s previous work, and also if James Newton Howard would maybe lay off the heavy-handed compositions for five minutes. His score is only ever elegiac or mournful; a broad-strokes accompaniment seemingly present only to make up for the vitality, anguish and necessary vigour missing from the onscreen drama. Our hero observes “It is better to suffer injustice than to do it”. I wonder; is it better than suffering these three wasted hours?
A Hidden Life plays at the London Film Festival from October 12th, and is in UK cinemas from January 17th, 2020