No matter what you may think of Terrence Malick — his last three films, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, received mixed reactions — there’s no denying that the director works in one mode: big. Even when focused on the microscopic nuances of relationships and nature, the Tree of Life director is exploring the expanse of life.
Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life, tells the WWII-era story of real-life Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (played by Inglourious Basterds’ August Diehl), and is filled with the kind of gorgeous imagery the director is known for. Hand in hand with cinematographer Jörg Widmer, Malick seems to have an uncanny control over light, sending sunbeams flooding across green grass and bumpy skin in shots that are so warm you can almost feel them. The images fill the screen, and while they’re not slow, they’re deliberate, asking for the eye to wander and take everything in.
A Hidden Life is a more linear film than some of Malick’s other work, without any real cosmic musing (except on the nature of doing what is right) and without much jumping through time. Franz and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) lead idyllic lives as farmers in Radegund. When Franz is conscripted into military duty, however, he refuses to take the Hitler Oath and fight for Nazi Germany. The decision lands him in prison.
For anyone unfamiliar with Jägerstätter’s story, I won’t spoil the ending, but there are only so many sources of recourse for a man imprisoned, and A Hidden Life isn’t propelled along by action so much as it crystallizes like amber. The film is almost a tone poem, focusing on conveying Franz and Fani’s emotions as they experience an event that barely registered during the war but is life-altering for them. Franz has an out, so long as he swears fealty to the Nazi Party, as everyone else in Radegund has done, but he must do what he feels is right.
The straightforward nature of the story also means that Malick is largely wearing his heart on his sleeve. There’s little subtext to A Hidden Life, and to that end, Franz’s soul-searching can feel somewhat shallow despite how uncharacteristically topical the subject matter is. It doesn’t help that most of the emotional arc is left to Franz despite the fact that he has about as much screen time as Fani, whose sense of conflict is arguably more compelling.
Sequences in which we see Fani’s gradual ostracizing from her community due to her husband’s beliefs are the most fraught in the movie, particularly as unfamiliar men wander onto her property and other citizens of Radegund go out of their way to express their contempt for her. None of that makes it into the letters she sends Franz, even as she cares for their three children and their entire farm with no help from anyone except her sister. The path to her understanding his motives for making his and her lives actively more difficult remains an unexplored one. It’s fortunate, as such, that Pachner and Diehl are such compelling screen presences, particularly Diehl, whose alpine forehead is a broad canvas demanding Malick’s patented fisheye lenses.
The title, A Hidden Life (renamed from Radegund), comes from a quote by George Eliot, which serves as the movie’s final card:
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Franz’s resistance was on a small scale. Throughout the film, characters ask him what he thinks he’s accomplishing through his commitment to his principles; others will take his place, they say, and nobody will ever remember him. Broadly speaking, their logic isn’t wrong, which makes it all the more incredible that he’s being immortalized — and by Terrence Malick, no less.
A Hidden Life vindicates Malick’s passionate fanbase, who swear he never lost his mojo, and should relieve those who don’t care for his recent work. But in case there was ever any doubt, let’s state it for the record: Terrence Malick is great, and has always been.
Fox Searchlight has picked up A Hidden Life for an undated U.S. release.