THE STORY – Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II.
THE CAST – August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist & Bruno Ganz
THE TEAM – Terrence Malick (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 173 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
I had given up on Terrence Malick. After three back to back films of dizzying (but dazzling) visuals, overlayed with meaningless voiceover narration and an apparent lack of coherence, I vowed I would not watch another one of his films unless he went back to a narrative-based approach. Malick’s earlier work on classics such as “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line” and yes, even “The Tree Of Life” made him one of the most distinctive in the world. Now, after the disappointments which were “To The Wonder,” “Knight Of Cups” and “Song To Song,” I am happy to say that he has indeed fallen back into my good graces again, returning to the narrative filmmaking style that made him one of the best visual storytellers alive today with “A Hidden Life.”
Malick’s latest tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a farmer who lives a peaceful life with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their children in the mountains of Austria during the second world war. When Hitler calls for able men to enlist in the army to fight alongside the Nazi’s, Franz experiences a crisis of faith. He knows his leaders are evil and cannot reconcile fighting alongside them for a cause he does not support as it goes against his religious faith. Many members of the town, friend and even family, try to persuade Franz to join but he maintains his stance, which eventually leads to him being imprisoned and possibly facing execution for treason.
As per the usual course with a Terrence Malick film, the cinematography in “A Hidden Life” is awe-inspiringly beautiful. Despite not working with recent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki as he did on his previous five films, DP Jörg Widmer steps up to deliver a film that still very much feels like Malick. As in, it’s one of the most visually striking films you are likely to see this year. Most of the shots take place on the mountainside and captures the naturalistic beauty of the environment as well as the simplistic way of life for the characters in this land they call home.
There is a tranquil quality that sets in as we give ourselves over to the majestic quality that is Malick’s filmmaking style. While some of his other films have touched deeply on the messages of spirituality and faith, never before has that been more apparent than in “A Hidden Life.” In a time where we are facing the rise of the far-right again whose ideology stems from the Nazi’s during World War II, Malick’s film feels more timely than ever as it showcases a simplistic way of life. Family, community, faith, love: these are the qualities which Malick is interested in exploring in his latest and how they can be used to combat the fires of hate. I truly believe his theme and vision is clear this time around. My only complaint is with the film’s length.
At nearly three hours long, “A Hidden Life” can be a bit of slog to get through. It’s not even until an hour in that Franz Jägerstätter is arrested and brought to a Nazi prison where he will be tried for defying the Nazi call to serve in the war. After this point, I started counting how many shots Malick could’ve afforded to leave on the cutting room floor as I believe there is a brilliant two-hour movie in here somewhere. The story is not that extensive and there aren’t that many major speaking roles (despite one scene cameos by Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts & Bruno Ganz), so why the extra length? Malick wants to create a mood and a state of mind for the viewer. He wants us to reflect on our faith and contemplate our own defiance in the face of such evil. The film’s breathing room leaves more than enough time to allow his latest to wash over you with its important message, making for one of his most powerful films.
The acting by both August Diehl and Valerie Pachner is very strong. The soothing and artistic score by James Newton Howard is one of the year’s best. The cinematography is absolutely spellbinding and the story is emotionally compelling for our troubled times. While there are merits within Malick’s latest with regards to its runtime, I can fully see why many may not be willing to give themselves over to the distinct filmmaker’s style for nearly three hours. I promise you though that this return to form is one of his better films from a master that I’ve personally had a frustrating relationship with. It celebrates the courage of those who have done heroic acts with little to no recognition, giving inspiration for us to hopefully do the same as the George Eliot quote at the end of the film suggests.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A return to narrative form for Malick results in one of his best films. Strong performances, an emotionally compelling story, breathtaking cinematography and a beautiful score by James Newton Howard.
THE BAD – With such a small story, there’s no reason this needed to be nearly three hours long as many extraneous (but still beautiful) shots could’ve afforded to be cut.
THE OSCARS – None