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 it 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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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

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 these 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 from prison compiled and edited by theologian Erna Putz. And in the process of telling this profoundly moving story of quiet resistance, Malick delivers his most deeply spiritual exploration since “The Tree of Life”.

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 family. 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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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

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 many letters Malick will incorporate into his film 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 fear of his own) “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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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

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 contentment. 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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38 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

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