A Hidden Life




Terrence Malick rises to the heights but then falls away again.

Hidden Life, A

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl


This is the latest film by the American writer/director Terrence Malick and it's a work that was unveiled at the 2019 Cannes film Festival to notably divided critical responses. Prior to that there had been widespread agreement that this filmmaker, the man who had impressed everyone with such early features as Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), had in recent times produced increasingly self-indulgent and disappointing works (titles such as To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) stand out in that respect). In the case of A Hidden Life, however, many were heard to say that Malick has returned to form at last in spite of which that verdict was quickly countered by plenty of other voices ready to argue the opposite. To my mind neither side is wholly wrong: to put it simply, the first half of his latest film really is a return to form whereas its second half is much less successful and, since once again Malick gives us a film of epic length (three hours near enough), there is plenty of time for the decline to be felt. Indeed, the most serious problem with A Hidden Life is one of length.


Malick's film, one of the many these days declared to be based on true events, has at its centre an Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) who is known to have been executed by the Nazis in 1943 but whose name has hardly gone down in history thus justifying the notion that his is a life that has largely remained hidden. In this telling of his story, the film concentrates on the period from 1939 to 1943 so when we first meet him he is living in his village with his devoted wife, Frani (Valerie Pachner), and their three young daughters. In 1940, he undergoes military training but initially he is protected from being called up by the work that he is doing. Nevertheless, in contrast to the mayor (Karl Markovics), he is greatly disturbed by the actions of Hitler and, being a Catholic of strong belief, he discusses his worries with the local vicar (Tobias Moretti) and even with a bishop (Michael Nyqvist). Convinced that Hitler is bad for Germany and is, indeed, an evil man, Franz is determined to avoid taking the Oath of Loyalty and persists in this even when in time he is called up to serve after all. It is a stand that will lead to his arrest, imprisonment and ultimate execution.


Some critics have treated this as a film about the Second World War as such and have accordingly denounced it for focusing on Franz and his sufferings while paying scant attention to the mass horrors of the era. Indeed, it is the case that a broader canvas is only hinted at - we do see historical newsreel footage of Hitler himself and for many viewers shots in which the camera moves along railway lines could well bring to mind those routes that led to the concentration camps, but there is little else. However, A Hidden Life, while necessarily indicating the context in which Franz's actions played out, is not a film about the war. Instead, it is a religious drama built around one man and what his faith required of him. In a world in which Hitler's subjects whatever their private doubts may have felt compelled to serve him (Hitler), Franz challenged that by finding it incompatible with serving Him (God).


Given Malick's artistry so apparent from the start of his career and the highly personal nature of his filmmaking since then, he is somebody who has to be considered a true auteur and in the line of artists who have chosen cinema as their medium of expression. What is surprising here is not that religious issues are involved (such matters often linked with  a worship of nature have been apparent in his works before) but the fact that, rather than being an out-and-out arthouse film like those by Robert Bresson, A Hidden Life comes across as a commercial movie of potential popular appeal. Consequently, if the setting inevitably brings to mind The Sound of Music, that is no handicap and, even if it is heard alongside extracts from Bach's St Matthew Passion and works by 20th century classical composers, the music written for the film by James Newton Howard is a good example of a score suited to popular cinema. In contrast, Edgar Reitz's Heimat films were through being subtitled essentially examples of arthouse cinema, but the fact is that they had at their heart storytelling of a popular kind and, especially in its first half, A Hidden Life is not far removed from that, albeit with the addition of a strong religious sense as a key ingredient. One unusual aspect of Malick's film could add to its commercial appeal here, namely his decision to use German actors speaking English while retaining the German language unsubtitled for background chatter and for scenes in which the import of what is being said is clear without any translation.


Although the chosen length may seem questionable for the story being told, the first half of A Hidden Life moves really well and is splendidly edited (even if it took three people to do it). But, once Franz is taken into custody, the outcome feels inevitable and covering the course of events so fully does make the film seem drawn out. Furthermore, although it does attempt to depict a dark night of the soul (Franz in a Berlin prison being confronted by the suggestion that to sacrifice himself is wrong because it will change nothing is akin to the gospel portrayal of Christ being tempted by Satan), this second half fails to go deep. Given the possible cost to his family if Franz continues to refuse to take the oath, the accusation made that his stance is down to pride does require more consideration even if ultimately the film should seek to argue that he is morally right whatever the consequences that result to others. Had A Hidden Life tackled these issues in detail its second half might have gripped as much as the first.


Certainly, the actors are fine throughout, but this is not an actors' film as is confirmed by the tendency to shoot more often in long and medium shots than in close-ups. As always with Malick, the look of it counts for a lot, but in this case one feels that the priority is to make us admire a man who followed the Christian way at a time when few did. That Malick's screenplay has such faith in an after-life that a happy ending with Franz and his family reunited after death is assured may add to his film's appeal to audiences of churchgoers and is doubtless true to his own beliefs. For others, however, it is likely to make A Hidden Life less rewarding, especially in the later stages which at this length need more depth to sustain them.




Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Karin Neuhauser, Michael Nyqvist, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jürgen Prochnow, Ulrich Matthes, Karl Markovics, Franz Rozowski, Tobias Moretti.


Dir Terrence Malick, Pro Elisabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio, Grant Hall and Josh Jeter, Screenplay Terrence Malick, Ph Jörg Widmer, Pro Des Sebastian T. Krawinkel, Ed Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason and Sebastian Jones, Music James Newton Howard, Costumes Lisy Christi.


Studio Babelsberg/Elizabeth Bay Productions-Walt Disney.
174 mins. Germany/USA. 2019. Rel: 17 January 2020. Cert. 12A.