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.
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.
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.
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