With each frame of A Hidden Life, the hills are alive with the sound of Malick. This Alpine odyssey is a return to form for Terrence Malick. The director of The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line is back in full force. Malick’s latest film is a profound consideration of peace, war, faith, love, and humanity. This evocative cinematic tome poem hits the heart and the mind. The director once again approaches life’s unanswerable questions with awe and wonder. If film is a spiritual quest, Malick is its chief philosopher.
The film marks Malick’s first narrative-driven film since 2005’s Pocahontas romp The New World. (But even that film was mostly just shots of grass, if beautifully so.) A Hidden Life tells the story of the unsung but significant life of Franz Jägerstätter. Played by August Diehl in a performance of quiet dignity and towering restraint, Jägerstätter is a humble peasant farmer in the Austrian Alps. The film chronicles his perseverance as he stands by his beliefs while the county goes to war.
Jägerstätter is away at basic training when the film begins. He conveys his thoughts in poetic letters penned to his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their children. (Malick both draws from and paraphrases the Jägerstätters’ published correspondence.) Franz worries about what will happen if the fighting continues and the Third Reich calls him up for war. The letters soothe his soul as Fani reassures him via her replies. She speaks to him like a divine presence that protects him from afar.
But when France falls, Franz appears to be safe. He returns home. He breathes in the Alpine air and sweet relief at the prospect of returning to Fani and the fields of harvest rather than the fields of war. This period is one of serenity. Malick soaks up the Austrian Alps in all their grand beauty. He witnesses the simple and, above all, peaceful life that Franz and Fani share. If there’s heaven to be found on this earth, it resides in their plot of land in St. Radegund.
What A Hidden Life conveys in this dramatic interlude, though, is merely the eye of the storm. War wages on and Franz receives his papers summoning him to battle. A man of principle, though, Franz refuses to swear an oath to Adolf Hitler. He becomes a traitor, pariah, and martyr in his own private war. The film provides a necessary bookend to the anti-war treatise of The Thin Red Line with Franz’s conviction. Malick once again penetrates the minds of men as they confront the futility of war. But where The Thin Red Line sees a generation lost to pointless warfare through the collective struggle of a band of brothers, this singular look at the inhumanity of war through one man’s eyes is equally provocative. A Hidden Life shares The Thin Red Line’s scope of grandeur, but Malick’s focus has rarely been so clear.
The film weaves between Franz in prison and Fani in her own private hell back home. The villagers ostracize Fani and although she faces repercussions as a result of her husband’s actions, she stands by him while raising their children alone. Husband and wife give each other strength in this time of crisis. Franz and Fani rarely speak face to face in A Hidden Life, but the revelatory performances by Diehl and Pachner, and Malick’s heavenly aesthetic, connect them on a spiritual level.
A Hidden Life witnesses Franz and Fani commune through prayers and letters. They whisper verses to one another, just as they did during the days of Franz’s training. They find strength in love and faith. The flowing elliptical editing by the trio of Sebastian Jones, Raymond Nizer Ali, and Joe Gleason creates a sense of oneness between two people who rarely share a frame.
The film admittedly has the usual blink- and- you’ll- miss- them cameos from recognizable stars in mildly distracting flyby cameo appearances. Matthias Schoenaerts, for example, has a handful of lines (if that) in a memorable exchange with Diehl. Also brief but significant are the final screen performances of Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist and Bavarian legend Bruno Ganz. One could chirp Malick for leaving their last appearances on the cutting room floor. However, he has a long history of doing away with characters and performances. Actors know what they’re signing up for in a Malick film. The bittersweet fleeting moments for the actors, particularly Ganz, actually feels quite appropriate in the way that Roger Ebert passed shortly after penning his final review in praise of To the Wonder. The elegiac Malickian mysticism offers a heavenly send off.
The cinematography in A Hidden Life, meanwhile, is a wonder to behold. Malick promotes Jörg Widmer to director of photography after serving as a camera operator for the director’s long-time DP Emanuel Lubezki. The Malickian sense of poetic grandeur doesn’t miss a beat. Shot almost entirely using natural light and making precise use daylight in difficult locations, the film radiates with warmth and compassion. The crisp sunlight is heavenly. It evokes a higher power keeping watch over Frantz and Fani as they hold to their convictions. The films of Terrence Malick offer some of cinema’s best canvasses, but the Alpine setting provides some of his most evocative visuals.
Malick’s recent films, To the Wonder, Voyage of Time, and Knight of Cups are united by a meandering aimlessness that muddles the fleeting lyricism of his masterpiece The Tree of Life. (I didn’t even bother to seek out his 2017 film Song to Song during its minuscule release.) Those films find themselves hopelessly lost in the sheer volume of material that Malick tries to bring together in the editing room. Alternatively, A Hidden Life achieves the evocative visual poetry and philosophical awe of the director’s best work. Sure, A Hidden Life imparts the same “Let’s go twirl in the wheat fields” direction of his other films, but it works amongst the divine backdrop of the Austrian Alps. The brief glimpses of intimate play that Franz and Fani enjoy in their fields offer moments of head-spinning wonder. When Malick catches the right brainwave, the result is something beautiful.
A Hidden Life opens in theatres December 20.