While it has been seven years since I last watched a Terence Malick film, since the release of the abysmally dour and soulless feature To The Wonder. Since then I chose to skip screenings of Knight of Cups, as well as Song to Song. However, the trailers for A Hidden Life seemed to suggest a film of a more personal nature, less ephemeral and more grounded in a real story. What Malick delivers might be his best work since The Thin Red Line but it still remains an enigma filled yet spiritual journey that is more ordeal than experience.
Telling the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector during the second world war who faced not only the persecution of the Nazi regime thanks to his beliefs but also the shunning of him and his entire family by his own community. Despite all this, he faces untold hardship along with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) as the church stands by and watches.
Both written and directed by Malick, A Hidden Life is structurally much like Malick’s other works, full of voice over and very little dialogue in favour of visual horror or quiet serenity. In that regard, his 9th feature film is a spectacle, one to be seen for a snapshot of a forgotten community in the hills, far away from the politics of the big cities ravaged by Nazi extremism. The occasional sight of a man in uniform sullies the land these people work for a living but perfectly encapsulates the encroaching power of a government trying to stamp out the kind of dissent Malick here is celebrating.
The film’s use of flashbacks in the opening act of this almost 3 hour (174 minutes) mammoth of a film not only connects you to the perfect version of Franz & Fani’s community but to the loving couple themselves. The letters they use to communicate, the ones that puncture the silence through airy, overly philosophical voiceover do little to reconnect you to a couple that loses themselves in Malick’s often unnecessary fancies.
In fact, despite the religious leanings of Franz, there is very little subtlety in Malick’s use of the church, be it the good or the bad of the institution. In fact, the way Franz pontificates towards the films end often paints him as a martyr, someone who knows they are dying for something instead of a man just trying to do right by his god and his morality. The moments that ring true are when these characters act like human beings, not paintings to be remembered and admired. When Franz struggles to bend against others wills, his wife included, his pain is palpable.
While Malick will always have a style that feels more like poetry than storytelling, one that can feel jarring to the reality he is trying to display, A Hidden Life feels tangible thanks to some brutally honest performances, especially from Pachner who makes every pound of the earth in desperation feel like a guttural scream. Eyes of melancholy hide lapses of faith and selfish desires. Here the silence works and the attempts to fill the gaps with voices don’t.
In a way, Malick’s disdain for conventional communication feels like the kind of quiet resistance Franz and Fani put themselves through. The title, a reference to George Eliot’s Middlemarch and a quote about how the good in this world is dependant on silent acts of ignored good, feels earned by the film’s conclusion even if the journey is long and full of religious pitfalls. Franz’s life of tortured fortitude is a story worth giving the time to learn and you might see something incredible, thanks to some stunning cinematography by Jörg Widmer.
While it is a long and hard ordeal, A Hidden Life is Malick’s most personal film and despite some aimless wandering along the way, it connects to a sense of corrupted community, fractured families and needless guilt. Clever and captivating, this ode to a life forgotten is worth remembering.