Current Issue #488

Film Review:
A Hidden Life

The much-celebrated but ever-elusive Terrence Malick’s latest epic is visually gorgeous and sometimes overwhelmingly moving, although at 174 minutes (his longest film ever), there’s perhaps just a little too much of it (yes, sacrilege!).

There’s much here to enrapture Malick’s devotees, and few other filmmakers would dare try for such a distinctly Malick-esque atmosphere of philosophical, even existential beauty and complexity, even if this is his first movie since 2005’s The New World to showcase something approaching a linear narrative.

Surely aware that his previous pics (like Knight Of Cups and Song To Song) were becoming distractingly star-studded, this is populated with often unfamiliar and untested European actors, but there are a few notable players, especially the Swiss Bruno Ganz and the Swedish Michael Nyqvist, both of whom died shortly after filming.

By telling the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, Malick also harks back to The Thin Red Line, The Tree Of Life and many of his other works by featuring a mortal horror of violence and hatred, although this, despite being all about war, doesn’t include a single gunshot.

In the small rural village of St. Radegund, Austria, back in 1939 we meet Franz (August Diehl), a farmer married to Franziska, or Fani (Valerie Pachner), who begin with a most Malick-flavoured montage featuring them remembering how they met, fell in love, married and started a family, while always remaining respected members of the tight-knit community. It’s a lengthy, non-chronological sequence offering whispered narration, unforced naturalism and restless camerawork, and it’s finally interrupted by the vague rumble of an unseen plane that warns of what’s coming.

Franz undergoes basic military training, but is then sent home when France surrenders and it looks like the war might end. Later he’s called up and, after much soul-searching and pressure from his friends, he refuses to take the necessary oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, despite knowing that it could result in his possible execution. He’s arrested and taken to Enns and then Berlin, and much of the midsection here is devoted to the reading of letters Franz and Fani write to each other, with him promising her that prison isn’t that bad, while we see the exact opposite, and her reassuring him that the villagers are treating the family well when they’re, in fact, shunned and even attacked.

Malick fans will rejoice at the lyrical, unhurried establishment of Radegund’s townspeople, with Diehl and many non-actors shown genuinely working the land (with some dangerous-looking scythes), baking bread, trudging happily through real mud and at times evoking the spirit of something like F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Sunrise (1927). The approach of the war and the onset of Nazi ideology comes quietly and stealthily, but soon the mayor is having loud, ominously nationalistic rants in the town square about how other races are ruining the country and how everything was perfect before “they” came along.

This makes A Hidden Life arguably the first Malick movie to include proper political commentary, meaning that this isn’t just another in a very long line of dramas about World War II, but actually a movie about right now.

Reviewer Rating

A Hidden Life (M) is in cinemas from 30 January

DM Bradley

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