As the second world war starts, Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) is forced to compromise his morals and join the German army. Facing enormous pressure from his community, his country and his church, Franz must decide how much his integrity is worth, whilst his wife and children suffer terrible consequences.
A Hidden Life is a film about the significance of a single life. Malick imbues Jagerstatter’s life with a momentous beauty that emphasises it’s simple but unique grandeur. His sacrifice is often questioned with opportunities to return to his normal life presented throughout. This is a film about a man who did what was most difficult and stood up for what he believed was right at all costs. The film questions what exactly Jagerstatter will achieve in mattering himself. It’s a film about a man weighing his immediate welfare against the greater good. Consequently, it’s a very emotional film.
A number of Malick’s trademarks are present. The film moves at a very languid pace through its three hours. Initially this pacing allows the sense of menace and alienation from the family’s community to build naturally. Later we experience the excruciating nature of prison time by witnessing the repetition and lack of purpose. Malick traps the audience in these moments, granting them a weight, a technique that becomes more effective as the narrative builds towards its dramatic climax. This can, however, feel self-indulgent and it’s a shame that with so much emotion and provocation awaiting the audience in the third act, Malick risks losing their patience in the first.
We also have Malick’s gliding camera and ultimately failed attempts to replicate the sublime cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. You can see Malick and cinematographer Jörg Widmer try to recreate the look of Tree of Life, but there’s no recapturing that magic. It is, however, a very beautiful film, aided by the naturally sublime mountains in which the film is set. Malick does risk a disconnect between the very natural performances presented by his actors and the ethereal movements of his camera. Sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re looking at people as in this hazy gaze, everything becomes object. Malick does, however, employ use of some POV shots and jump cuts to great effect.
As you’d expect we hear our characters narrate the action with long monologues addressed to god or an absent parent. This has been a signature of Malick’s since The Thin Red Line but although previous narrations have felt superfluous or too obtuse, they’ve never felt redundant before. In this film we have Malick using the narration to deliver exposition, especially at the start of the film. This time the narration actually robs the film of some of its subtlety, whereas his previous narrations have been more lyrical and mysterious in nature.
This is particularly unnecessary considering the strengths of his cast. August Diehl is haunting as Jagerstatter. His hypnotic and penetrating eyes recall Klaus Kinski. His performance is powerful as he articulates great sorrow and almost mad defiance. Valerie Pachner is excellent as Jagerstatter’s long-suffering wife. She hits that perfect spot between frustration and dejection. Matthias Schoenaerts and Bruno Gantz are also outstanding as the human faces of the oppressors. They are at once compassionate, threatening and deeply ruthless.
The film documents a life untouched by western cinema before, but recalls a litany of other films. The agony of indecision recalls Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, whilst the threat of imminent execution on grounds of principle is at once Paths of Glory and Silence. The subject matter may not be groundbreaking but Malick delivers one of the finest studies of doubt and conviction ever put to film.
Malick’s films have recently been very unfocused ruminations on the cost of success and the malaise of richer living. They seem inconsequential in the context of his work from Badlands through to Tree of Life. Malick actually addresses the recent criticism of his movies by introducing an analogue. Jagerstatter meets a priest who paints churches. He says that he paints happy Christs, Christs who are comfortable and triumphant. He wants to paint the real Christ, the suffering Christ, but feels he cannot as how can he paint what he has not experienced. Yet he feels that he would like to paint “a real Christ” soon. Malick has been making movies about what he knows, self-doubt in a comfortable lifestyle and the perils of success. Yet he has a proven record of bringing a myriad of human experiences to life without having experienced them first hand.
On the path back to his golden days. The film lacks the complexity and ambiguity of his mighty earlier works, but it’s wonderful to see Malick tackle loftier themes and actual stories. If he could just exercise a little more discipline and embrace the aspects of his recent style that work thematically as well as aesthetically, then Malick may well be capable of another masterpiece someday.