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MOVIES: A Hidden Life (LFF 2019) - Review

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A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick’s most conventional narrative driven work since before The Tree of Life, and the divisive filmmaker returns with a straightforwardly plotted yet intricate, anti-war feature about the persecution of an Austrian farmer when he refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler in the Second World War. Torn away from his life and sentenced to prison, the film showcases the plight of conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, Franziska, brilliantly told thanks to Malick's artistic direction and the gripping, naturalistic portrayals by the incredibly talented duo of August Diehl and Valerie Pachner, who demonstrate palpable chemistry even when Malick's traditional restraint forces them to be reigned in.

We open with the film introducing us to chilling archive footages of Nazi rallies before cutting to a remote farmland in Austria, where we get a rare glimpse of life before the war. The first time August is recruited he goes to war and swears an Oath to Hitler, but upon his return, he comes to a different awakening, a realization that he may be fighting for the wrong side and even though the actions of one man are not likely to change the course of history he will stand by his morals even if it means his end. Diehl demonstrates the conflict within Franz to perfection, understated yet at the same time not by Terrence Malick standards, and you get to see the hurt that the character goes through the more he struggles against his ideals knowing that they will put his family in harms way. We see several shots of the villagers turning against the Jägerstätter family, hurling insults at them from confused looks the moment Franz refuses to respond to a “Heil Hitler” for the first time.

Malick lets long scenes play out spoken in German without English subtitles, yet this feels like a purely narrative choice. Although Malick himself is not above resorting to idealistic landscape shots that he used frequently in his previous work, here they feel like they have more of a purpose, picked carefully with an eye for making the home of the Jägerstätters feel real and alive, with a peace like quality that feels at odds with every wartime location that we see. War hasn’t touched the Jägerstätter’s homeland yet; the people who remain behind have not seen the horrors that Franz has. They keep them out of sight and out of mind, in no small part due to fear, fear that they too might suffer the wrath of the diabolical Nazi regime.

Even though A Hidden Life is on paper a war film, it is a war film like no other. There are no high stakes action scenes, military charges or epic tank battles. Instead, Malick focuses on the quieter internal struggles of human character, of pain and oppression. The film itself is so ambitious, so daunting, and at one hundred and seventy-three minutes long, it can feel like an undertaking to sit through. Yet the payoff is rich, and Malick’s message is important that can never not be made: All it takes for the actions of evil to win is for good people to do nothing.

The themes of “crisis of faith” against a wartime backdrop echo the maturity of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, there is no sense of rawness and everything feels polished to perfection. Jörg Widmer’s cinematography helps everything feel alive and lived in, and simple shots of water running down streams look like they belong in a museum. It is delicate and lush, and even the ugliness of the inner city has a sense of romanticism to it, acting like an artist’s dream.

Voiceovers have been more common in Malick’s work than in any other director and here Malick shows he is capable of using restraint with them, rather than the overabundance of Song to Song and Knight of Cups, employing delicate touches to help externalise the character’s internal struggles. Particularly in the third act they are used primarily to convey character’s conversation through letters to one another, as that is the main form of dialogue, if you will, for much of the last act of the film. It works, and it more than carries the narrative arc, and wouldn’t feel believable if employed in another way. Language has always been a key feature in Malick’s work and here it is no different, echoing past instalments of his filmography like the equally beautiful masterpiece that is Days of Heaven.

Make no mistake about it, there are still Terrence Malick detractors that will take issue with A Hidden Life and as usual with a Malick film it will not be a crowd-pleasing spectacle. But it is a return to form, a return to form even for those who have liked his less well received works, and reminds audiences why a new Malick film is still, even after all that has come before, a one of a kind religious experience.

You can watch the full trailer for A Hidden Life here.

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