Those describing A Hidden Life as Terrence Malick’s return to form are being disingenuous. The simple truth is that it’s nothing different or unusual from anything within the director’s past several films post his Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life. Though it can be said that his latest venture contains a potent mixture of the aforementioned film’s contemplative thoughts on our role as human beings in our universe, and a dash of strong anti-war sentiments from The Thin Red Line. Still, the calls for it being a “return to form” may be based off of the mere fact that it’s easily more watchable and digestible than the more recent entries in his filmography, despite the daunting run time of 173 minutes (which is still not enough to make it the longest film of this year’s Chicago Film Festival).
A Hidden Life begins with one of the key tools in Malick’s shed: a voice-over. This time, the hushed and ponderous voice belongs to Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a farmer living in Radegund, Austria with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter (Valerie Pachner) and their three young daughters. It is 1939, and the country has been annexed by Nazi Germany as part of its extravagant plan to rule the world. Every Austrian man is called to serve in World War II, and is forced to swear loyalty to Hitler. Franz refuses due to his deep devotion to Catholicism and his objections to the horrors committed by the Third Reich, which leads to his imprisonment.
What unfolds over the film’s lengthy run time is an exploration into what causes the world to go mad and abandon their faith. Is it due to a sense of hopelessness, or is it due to the voices of silver-tongued serpents such as Adolf? Even the local bishop (Michael Nyqvist) attempts to persuade him to abandon his spiritual crusade by agreeing to serve and pledge fealty, though Franz refuses to break down. Time and time again, he is told to give up and surrender. “Will anyone remember you?” sneers one of the officers while he rots away in a Berlin prison. In real life, Franz’s devotion to his beliefs led to an eventual beatification bestowed upon him by the Pope. While A Hidden Life doesn’t use title cards to reveal the traditional “what happened to everyone involved in this story” ending in most biopics, the film’s deep sense of religious faith and the way it explores the concept of devotion to faith, even in the darkest of times, will awaken a sense of holiness in even the most atheistic viewer.
Holiness is perhaps Malick’s greatest strength. A natural born preacher of cinema, he lavishes his stories with incredible camerawork; a combination of the odd angles and positions from Song to Song, and the grand sweeping vistas of his works from the twentieth century. One can practically hear Malick whispering prayers in the wheat fields, calling out to God for guidance in this crumbling world we live in. His cinematographer this time around (Jörg Widmer), proves to be a born match for Malick’s vision, creating one of the most visually stunning films of the year. Even in the more erratic moments of editing, the beauty is always there.
Despite all these wondrous moments and spiritual fits of transcendence, A Hidden Life is marred by a few flaws (those these flaws may depend on the viewer). Malick’s more blunt dialogue is odd to hear in those in the more quiet moments, and the inconsistency between the use of German and the use of English may be enough to irritate viewers who are already annoyed with the obtuse lines delivered by some of Germany’s finest actors. The second act does drag and become repetitive at certain points, though this will be forgotten once the truly astounding finale wraps everything up with elegance and grace. Is it a return to form? No. Is it a wonderful new marker in an acclaimed auteur’s career? Yes.
A Hidden Life screened at this year’s Chicago Film Festival. The film will hit select cinemas on December 13th