Terrence Malick's drama about the life of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter is a thing of excessive beauty
Pretentious. Self-indulgent. Boring. For many, these words have come to epitomise a decade’s worth of work from reclusive auteur Terrence Malick, whose recent slew of swirling, narration-heavy, and largely plotless films set out to probe the inner lives of people both sad and beautiful. I was less opposed to Malick’s contemporary relationship dramas than most, finding films like Knight of Cups and Song to Song to be oddly relaxing in the same way a visit to an aquarium can be, or a nice screensaver. Still, the filmmaker’s knack for endless, rhetoric navel-gazing wasn’t to everyone’s taste.
Is Malick more at home in the past than the present? His latest film, A Hidden Life, makes a valid case. It is at once made in the sprawling, ever-searching style he came to define in 2011’s Tree of Life, yet – feeling like a compromise between two mindsets – it also sticks to a fairly rigid linear narrative structure. And though it’s still a gorgeous, ponderous movie that “floats” through space and time, there is a simplicity here that softens the pretentious edges. It helps that it’s based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian contentious objector whose refusal to swear an oath to Hitler resulted in his execution in 1943.
Jägerstätter, played by German actor August Diehl (best known for his role as a Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), lives in a remote mountain region in Austria with wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), their three children, her sister, and his mother. Their existence is depicted as one in perfect harmony with the land, and Malick paints a poetic picture of a life in service of crops, farming, and God. The village and the surrounding landscape appear like a vision of Heaven, and so it is impossible not to feel utter contempt for the Nazi machine when it extends its grasp into this rural utopia and begins to poison its inhabitants and their way of life.
What would you do? A Hidden Life asks whether it is possible to live having bent ourselves to the dark will of others. Jägerstätter’s faith in a higher power means that he would rather die than swear an oath to Hitler, and Malick finds the main thread of his film in the idea that this man’s act of refusal is private, quiet, hidden. Imprisoned after being called up to fight for the Germans for a second time, Jägerstätter is repeatedly told that his protests will have no bearing on history, that he is wasting his time. A Hidden Life is the kind of film where you find yourself internally willing him to just take the oath so he can go back to his family. His suffering is made to seem so unnecessary, but of course that’s the point. For this man, taking the oath and not meaning it is just as bad as taking the oath and meaning it. So he holds out.
Diehl isn’t given quite enough room to deliver the revelatory performance you’d expect from a biopic of this sort, but he has a period authenticity and shares a nice, lived-in chemistry with Pachner. Mostly, though, the actor serves as an object for the camera to lunge towards and prod. Relegated for the most part to mere facial expressions, Diehl – restlessly wandering the streets, hands in pockets, brow perpetually furrowed – convinces us of a conflicted man who appears to understand his fate long before it’s revealed to him.
Whilst A Hidden Life is definitely Malick’s most accessible film for a long time, at 174 minutes it does end up feeling on the excessive side. A strong and engaging first act is undercut somewhat by a middle section that fails to justify its languid pace. At points, it feels like we are being reacquainted with the bad habits of the director’s more meandering contemporary dramas. Yet by the end Malick regains control; the final hour is tense, touching, and deeply affecting, and a scene where Jägerstätter awaits execution as his fellow prisoners are sent to their deaths, one by one, is as emotionally devastating as anything in the filmmaker’s canon.
Director of Photography Jörg Widmer, who worked as a cameraman on prior Malick outings under the tutelage of Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, creates miraculous images that – paired with a remarkable, string-heavy score from great and often under-appreciated composer James Newton Howard – hit you ceaselessly on a spiritual level. Who would have guessed, just as so many were preparing to flee the Church of Malick for good, that he would reaffirm his place as one of our most achingly inquisitive and visionary filmmakers.Find showtimes nearby