A Hidden Life Review

Terrence Malick has made a career crafting highly sumptuous, often meandering portraits of flawed but well-meaning individuals. He is fascinated by images of nature, and often lingers on leaves, small animals, or the texture of soil with his camera often below knee level to stretch the image to grandiose proportions. It’s thus no surprise that his latest film, A Hidden Life, continues this trend. What may surprise some is that it’s ostensibly a World War II story, telling the tale of an Austrian soldier who refuses to pledge loyalty to his fellow countryman the Fuhrer.

Suffice it to say the pacing of a modern Malick film is what makes many of his fans palpitate. His dreamlike photography focuses on these small details, bringing through the imagery the often conflicting inner thoughts of his protagonists. Here the images remain appropriately bucolic, with sun dappled hills evoking rural Austrian life. There are even a few shots that are redolent of the magic hour majesty of Days of Heaven, with the amber of grain, the hue of fire and the light blue of the sky making for a wonderful palate.

Malick adds an epistolic flourish, with voiceovers reading from historical letters from some of the characters embodied in the film. These are terse but caring love letters between husband and wife, and often the words are set to explicit recreation of events described. Franz (August Diehl) is a farmer/soldier who when drafted refuses to take an oath to Hitler. His wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) is raising their young and rambunctious girls while toiling in the fields, unable to receive help given her husband’s political stance

There’s about fifteen minutes of narrative stretched out, at times deservedly and at others indulgently, to the three hour running time of the film. The result is inordinate repetition, common to Malick, where shot after shot of wheat fields, rolling countryside and dirty fingers make the contemplative intention feel forced. Still, compositionally there’s much to admire, and thanks to lensing by long time Malick collaborator Jörg Widmer there’s enough pastoral beauty to state.

There’s a complication regarding the central focus of the film itself, particularly given directorial choices. Dealing with Nazis is always fraught with over-simplification of the barbarity of the day, and here it’s clear that greater issues of humanity and sacrifice are at play. What’s discomfiting is how there are really two types of members of the Nazi regime – those that speak English and those only German. For the latter it’s easy to determine their intent as they’re often red faced and shouting. These are the prison guards and other nasty people that are two dimensionally drawn.

For others, the ones we’re meant to be sympathetic to (or at least admire their adherence to protocol) they speak in English. This gives the general audience greater depth, even of commanders of military tribunals, forging stronger connection with these individuals. This sets up a good (or at least humanized) Nazi versus bad Nazi dynamic, which echoes the central tenet of the film where there were decent people who stood up against the tyranny without hope of reward.

What’s complicated, of course, is that every moment where proper Germanic justice is being meted, right down to a “humane” execution, shows the rules of law that were systematically denied to literally millions of individuals at the hands of the regime. As we’re meant to feel for this imprisoned, stubborn man who eschews his family and refuses to succumb to the pressure of escaping to hospital duty, one can’t help but think of those denied all forms of due process.

Apologists will simply slake this off as secondary to the main storyline, but then one has to ask just what Malick is looking to say with this story. The character in real life was beatified and held up as a touchstone of “not all Austrians”, showing the “good hearted” citizens while many continue to downplay the Austrian roots of Hitler emerging from a culture that continues to poisoned with xenophobia and anti-Semitic. Are we to take at face value the noble struggle of the peasant wife whose husband did “the right thing”, or to feel his sacrifice was more selfish than sane?

Perhaps the film will do well to generate this kind of discussion, and it’s not as if Malick hasn’t already run into issues of representation (look to 2005’s The New World for another tone deaf presentation by the beloved auteur). This shouldn’t prevent one from taking the film on its own terms, but given that it feels jarring to some, and other patently oblivious to it even being an issue, indicates about how such storytelling speaks to different audiences in different ways.

In most ways that count, this is a return to form for Malick, at least the post-Days of Heaven form where he cares less about concision than he does his rambling, ruminative meanderings. There’s more of a narrative hook here than normal (even if stretched butter-on-toast thin over three hours) that people will be able to embrace his quirks without feeling lost among the metaphysical clutter. A Hidden Life is beautiful, overlong and confounding, much like most of Malick’s films, and as such this is a film that will certain move many, bore even more, and be ignored by an even larger group than both combined.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.