REVIEW: “A Hidden Life” (2019)

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It’s probably safe to say that Terrence Malick is an acquired taste. Many sing the praises of his eloquent visuals and deeply meditative style of filmmaking. Yet I know others who find his films to be boring, overly long, and essentially plotless. While the boring part is up for debate, it’s kinda hard for even the most ardent Malick apologists to argue against the other two points.

At the same time those are some of the Malickian trademarks I love most. With the exception of his last two feature films, I tend to enjoy Malick’s lengthy, extensive meditations. Sure, there are times when you would like to see him surrender more control to his editor. But when he’s hitting his marks I find his work to be breathtaking. And even though plot is hardly his focus, he has such command of his own unique visual language that it’s easy for me to get lost in the artistry.

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His latest film “A Hidden Life” is certainly lengthy, clocking in at a hefty three hours. But it does see Malick going a slightly different route by following a more structured narrative. The film is still filled with his signature contemplative voice-overs and captivating gazes across divine landscapes. But it also sees him focused on telling a more traditional story, one of righteousness versus evil, which is served by all of the distinct flourishes we have come to expect.

“A Hidden Life” tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector who refused to fight for Nazi Germany or pledge his loyalty to Hitler. Inspiration was taken from a collection of Jägerstätter’s letters to his wife from prison compiled and edited by theologian Erna Putz. In the process of telling this profoundly moving story of quiet resistance, Malick delivers his most deeply spiritual exploration since “The Tree of Life”. And through this cinematic journey he begs us, not just to see, but to feel the love, fear, pain and longing through this central couple.

Franz is played by August Diehl whose tender minimalism gives us clear insight into his character’s soul. Everything is well when we first meet Franz. He lives with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters in the small village of Radegund cozily nestled in an Alpine valley in northern Austria. It’s a hard-working life but one filled with beauty, love, and contentment. Malick’s opening act is exquisite, full of warmth and images which remind us that no other filmmaker’s camera is as in tune with the majesty of nature as his. But the imagery is not without purpose. It’s meant to help convey the idea of serenity and happiness. “We lived above the clouds,” Fani recalls.

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One afternoon their halcyon existence changes when Fani hears the distant hum of plane engines over their valley. War has come and brought with it fear and uncertainty. Franz willingly accepts the call for a brief stint of military training, but he quickly begins questioning what he sees as an unjust war. “What has happened to our country?” he asks Fani in one of the many letters Malick will incorporate into his film for the rest of the way.

Franz returns to the valley carrying the weight of his convictions. How could he fight in a war built around unspeakable evil yet call himself a servant of Christ? What should he do if draft papers come his way? How will standing up for his beliefs effect those whom he loves? The joy that once filled his heart gives way to worry, uncertainty, and inner-conflict. Many of the villagers turns against him and his family branding them traitors. Franz seeks counsel from the church but is told by the bishop (compromised by his own fear) “You have a duty to the fatherland. The church tells you so.”

As a literal and metaphorical storm brews in the distance it becomes clear that bad news is on the way. Franz is called to active duty and ordered to report to the Wehrmacht garrison in Enns. But after refusing to take the Hitler oath he is immediately thrown into prison. Fani, back home tending to the farm and taking care of their daughters, is notified of Franz’s arrest and through a series of letters the two begin dealing with their circumstances. It’s here that Malick captures an even deeper expression of their faith and love for one another.

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Malick’s sweeping impressionistic gaze does more than just capture stunning scenery. It’s true he and cinematographer Jörg Widmer swoon over snow-capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, and lush green valleys. But here it’s more than simple musings on nature. Early on the scenes help convey love, peace, and happiness. But later with Franz in prison and Fani laboring in the fields, the scenery (though still exquisite) looms in the background like a haunting memory. Again, unlike some of his recent films, Malick uses his intensely visual approach (along with James Newton Howard’s elegant and gentle score) to feed the narrative and bring life and depth to his characters.

“A Hidden Life” is a Terrence Malick movie through and through. Stirring and meditative, intimate and challenging. But here he is guided by one man’s inspirational journey. Malick gives us a three-dimensional portrait of a rare type of hero, told through a true story of faith, family, and the unquenchable human spirit in the face of tremendous persecution. Malick’s storytelling methodology may still be an issue for those with little patience. But I was spellbound from the very start and found this to be one of the most soul-stirring movie experiences of the year.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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51 thoughts on “REVIEW: “A Hidden Life” (2019)

  1. I almost considered seeing this until I saw the run time. I’m one of those people who don’t care for Malick, but I was willing to give him another chance once I heard this actually had a coherent plot, but I’m not sure if I can do another three hours of Malick. I’m glad this film seems to be working for those that love him though.

    • It’s really hard to say. If you don’t care for Malick this might be a hard sell. On the other hand it does follow an incredibly powerful story and I was so moved by it. I was pretty much captivated from the start.

  2. I’m a bit indifferent to Malicks movies , I have found him a bore , so pretty much ignore him . But when I heard of this movie , being a war buff and history one as well , I was intrigued . I’m currently reading a biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas about the Pastors life and involvement in a plot to kill Hitler ( someone should bring a new movie about his life , be great ) so this story really resonated with me . After your review , I will track this film done and see it . The trailer had me intrigued so your praise sealed the deal . Looking forward to seeing it.

    • This is Malick still pondering through imagery but it is much more focused in my opinion. The war element is really well done despite never showing combat of any kind. But it’s just as much an exploration of true biblical faith in the face of unspeakable evil. It spoke to me like nothing else this year.

      • As a man of faith, examining how one lives when confronted to compromise but if you don’t will cost you, intrigue me especially during times of war and the evil of Nazi Germany. You have me truly excited to see this movie.

      • Exactly. This movie really gets to the heart of that. His faith in Christ is challenged from all sides. So you could say he is a hero in many senses.

  3. Well I had to call up his filmography and it won’t surprise you I’ve seen none of his movies! But I do like the sound of this one, I don’t mind 3hr movies as I’m OK with doing them over 2 nights.
    Also exciting times- netflix arriving on Friday! 🙄🤣 I might never be seen again.

  4. I want to see this. It’s Malick. I just got a copy of Song to Song from Amazon (that I will open on Xmas day) as I am going to see it. I heard this film is an improvement over his recent features (though I am in that minority that enjoyed To the Wonder and Knight of Cups) as it is a returned to a more structured narrative. Especially as someone like myself who comes from a Catholic background, I want to see this as I also heard this is Malick’s most political film to date in regards to what is going on right now here in the now Un-United States of America.

    • In with you on To the Wonder but haven’t been crazy about his film since then. But (as you can tell) I absolutely love this one. Some have definitely looked at it as a very political film and that’s fine. Personally I think that’s a bit of a stretch but whatever. I see far more as an inspirational biopic of an uncommon kind of hero as well as a moving mediation on sustaining faith amid intense persecution. Sooo good.

  5. He is quite a divisive figure, the reviews are often quite extreme on both ends. I think of “The New World” as peak Malick, just enough narrative but still clearly a Malick movie (I loved it by the way). Looking forward to this one, except so far it has not shown up in theaters here. Your review kind of confirms my interest in it.

  6. I appreciate Malick’s artistry, but I do find that his films are mostly drawn out and at times, indulgent. *hides* Anyhow, it’s interesting to see that he has chosen to go for a more structured narrative, which should make this more palatable than his previous works. Looking forward to watching it in theatres!

    • I can’t wait to see it in theaters. I loved it this much just from a screener. I can’t wait to see it on the big screen. I completely get what you’re saying. Malick is a different breed. Have you seen the trailer for this one?

    • That’s an intriguing comparison. Actually there are some artistic choices that could be considered similar. But really this is very Malickian through and through. The story (WW2) would interest you for sure. I’d be really curious to see how you respond to Malick’s approach to it. I found it to be absolutely beautiful.

  7. I’ve liked all of Malick’s recent stuff, I’ve never put too much into plot (though of course a good story is always great) cos I’ve always seen film as a blank canvass for an audio-visual experience, key word experience. I try to immerse myself as much as possible yknow? I need to find the release date for this online, it didn’t play here unfortunately.

    Speaking of films without much plot but look beautiful, have you seen a film called Evolution from 2015? I haven’t seen it since then but I remember it being a visual treat with little to no story. Our tastes usually align, and it reminded me of Malick at the time. If you ever see it I’d be interested in your thoughts

  8. I echo Brittani’s comments. I am not sure I can do 3 more hours of Malick. I can appreciate his love letter to nature and its connection to his storytelling only so much. I may not have the patience for his films any longer but I very much loved your review and I hope one day he himself reads it.

    • Oh well, I had to try and make the case for it. 😁 It was easily my film of the year. The story of a conscientious objector who because of his faith refused to pledge an oath to Hitler is right up my alley. It’s such heartfelt storytelling unlike anything he has done in years.

  9. Pingback: Thursday Movie Picks #288: Films Released In 2019 – FlixChatter Film Blog

  10. I like you find it very easy to get lost in the visual artistry Malick manages to create. And i had the same basic thought as you, his visuals combined with a proper and powerful narrative makes for an amazing experience. I too was compelled from start to finish, it is two days later and its still on my mind. I can certainly see why it was number 1 for you for 2019. For me it’ll be one of my top 2020 films, I know that for sure!

    • Fantastic! I’m just glad someone else is giving it a shot. It really does seem to be a completely forgotten movie this awards season. No buzz, no talk, no nothing. I was asked to appear on a show to do some Oscar talk. We filmed it last night and it should go up next week. I made sure to find a spot to plug this film.

      • Oh wow, what was the show?? That is really cool mate, I’d absolutely love to actually have an audience of more than three people!! Appearing on any sort of podcast or whatever would be the coolest thing I think! Good on ya for pimping this movie!!

        Funnily enough, I didn’t know about the length or the strong narrative when going to see this. I went in 100% blind. I’ll be honest, it was your listing it at #1 for 2019 that had me buying the ticket, no joke!! And boy, am I glad that I did.

        As for people not giving this a shot, I can understand given the lack of narratives in recent films, but this is pretty much the exact opposite of that, WITH the amazing visuals to go with it. To be honest, I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t give it a try. Hell, I just watched Little Women, and its so far from the sorta movies I enjoy I don’t think I could go any further!! Apart from romantic comedies probably 😉

        I think most folk need to be more open-minded. And that isn’t intended as a slight on anyone, I think most people tend to stick to their comfort zones. But new discoveries are half the reason I watch movies. Hell, a recent film that I just had to write about, even if I’m writing just for myself these days, was a Chinese film of 3 hours and 40 minutes. And its up there with my favourite films of last year! You can just never know until you try..

      • So true! As for this show, it’s called Tavern Talk. The Oscar show will be up in a couple days. I’ll put up a post and a link. Hope you’ll check it out.

      • Definietely mate, heh and I love that title! I sometimes have a mind blank and forget to check blogs, if you happen to remember post a link anywhere on my site. Heh I also wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts if you saw any of the movies I’ve written about recently, thought admittedly recently they have been quite off the beaten track. One had the same cinematographer as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I thought was really good, and again that normally isn’t my thing, especially romance based movies! 😛

  11. Great movie and review Keith. I saw it over 2 days because of the lenght. But It brought something to mind-in your opinion, Does Malick’s movies resemble Kubricks in any way?

    • Great! I’m always thrilled to hear from someone who has given it a look. You pose an interesting thought. Kubrick is a mixed bag for me. Like Malick his filmography can kinda be broken down into two segments with the earlier seeming quite different than the later. Both due tend to have a meditative quality. But I think Kubrick tends to be more cerebral where as Malick wants you to really feel. Take “A Hidden Life”. Through his actors, camera, and score Malick works hard to make us feel the love, hurt, fear and sorrow. He doesn’t spell out a lot. Instead he shows it and wants us to connect on a deep emotional level. I really did which is one reason I adore this film so much.

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