There’s no denying the beautiful and emotional strength of Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” But at nearly three hours in length, the divisive auteur’s best film since 2011’s “The Tree of Life” will still try viewer patience.
“A Hidden Life” tracks the real-life story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter’s refusal to fight for the Nazis in World War II. As a conscientious objector, Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) was arrested and held in prison until he was tried and convicted. His sincere beliefs did not convince the Nazi-run government to stay his execution in 1943. Although not covered in the film, the Catholic Church later granted him beatification.
You either love or hate filmmaker Malick’s approach to story-telling with his camera. Bursting onto the scene in 1973 with “Badlands” followed in 1978 by “Days of Heaven,” he didn’t make another film for 20 years, finally, giving us “The Thin Red Line.” But Malick has become more and more prolific since 2011’s “The Tree of Life.”
The lauded filmmaker’s patented languid method has frustrated me in recent years. And films like “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups” even had his biggest fans wondering whether he had lost his touch. With “A Hidden Life,” we get a story that can be followed and, given the weighty subject matter, is right his the director’s wheelhouse. Jägerstätter’s resistance is handled with great respect by the always thoughtful Malick.
Compare the way Mel Gibson handled similar material in 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” a film I liked. Gibson’s decidedly more mainstream handling of the narrative had his conscientious objector, US Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, performing heroically in battle, while never firing a shot. While the story elements here are much different, Malick refuses to glamorize his subject and instead focuses on the intimate moments between Jägerstätter and his loving wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner).
Much of the film has Jägerstätter in prison, and we hear him in voice-over reading letters to his wife. In turn, we hear Fani’s voice in letters, as well. It’s moving stuff, for sure, but the incremental progress won’t play well for mass audiences. Note that in a Malick movie, everyone whispers, even, it seems, when they are yelling at one another. This gives his work an ethereal quality, but one criticized as pretentious.
This movie shot on digital (Red Epic 6K and 7K) with wide-angle lenses looks beautiful. Like so much of Malick’s work, he shows off the beauty of nature. The Austrian countryside is captured brilliantly, as the pastoral landscapes become another character in the film.
Malick fans will rejoice that he has returned to a safe place, and nonfans, who are patient, will be rewarded by the intended subtleties present in “A Hidden Life.”
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com