In “A Hidden Life”, Terrence Malick returns to the philosophical and theological subjects he previously touched in “Tree of Life”. His newest feature is a gorgeous film to look at, and a transcendent story of seeking answers to a time-tested question of what truly begets evil.
As Ernest Hemingway wrote: Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime. This united all filmmakers and all the films that spoke about conflicts. But over more than 70 years of cinema’s history with that topic, a vast majority was drawn by the dans macabre of battlefields, deaths and suffering. War is there to be witnessed, felt, and only then despised, and understood as pure horror. That’s where “Come and See” or “Private Ryan” belong.
A substantially smaller number of artists looked at war from a different point of view, one which portrayed it far from the minefields. They gazed at hopelessness of inside homes, in villages and towns. A route taken by a Georgian Oscar Nominee “Tangerines”, directed by Zaza Urushadze.
And then there is Terrence Malick and “Thin Red Line” – a war poem, a philosophical essay about evil made and executed by man on man.
“A Hidden Life” – a war drama like no other
In “A Hidden Life”, Terrence Malick shows how this war was neither necessary, nor justified.
As mentioned, Malick had already tackled this subject in his filmmaking career, in a widely praised “The Thin Red Line”. Based on a novel by James Jones, the story focusing on a few American soldiers sent to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, had balanced the war zone poetry with a spectacle of visceral images which captured the battlefield’s atrocities.
The latter is never shown in “A Hidden Life”, but make no mistake – this is, by all means, a war drama.
The film’s plot finds a factual rebel against the Nazi reign, Franz Jägerstätter, who refuses to pledge loyalty to Adolf Hitler when the dictator rallies the troops around the country. Franz, a happily married farmer and father of three lovely girls, has no intention of fighting.
The way Malick unfolds Franz and Franziska’s drama corresponds to another film by this director, “Tree of Life”. Conversations are left unfinished, and the narrative is steadily pushed by the philosophical and theological monologues of Franz. While that might sound like a chore to sit through, Malick’s impeccable style is fully immersive, and so is this story. At some point, Franz gets locked behind the bars, but even then his will remains unbent.
Though it may seem like that, Malick’s not here to build a statue of Jägerstätter. The director questions the rightness of this one-man resistance. Franz stands by his moral backbone, but at the cost of his family’s suffering and humiliation.
Is it justified? Is it right?
Answers aren’t given on a plate. But steering away from the glorification sets the bar high for the actors and the narrative itself. This choice emphasizes how Nazis proselyted the masses, and lets the film paint the brainwashing process behind it too.
However, it’s also the way Malick slightly changes the historical figure of Franz Jägerstätter that reveals a lack of his typical moralizing. The real Franz was a well-educated man, who travelled around the world and has seen enough evil to grow this kind of refusal. But a simple farmer, like he’s presented in “A Hidden Life”, points to the inexplicability of good, the same as of evil. Epicureus could not comprehend the roots of evil, but how come a farmer finds so much insane courage to stand firmly against the entire war machine of the Third Reich?
The topic of faith in “A Hidden Life”
As he did in his previous works, Malick challenges faith too, but in “A Hidden Life” the director reaches for Epicurean dimension of God. As the Greek philosopher stated in his problem of evil: if an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient god exists, then evil does not. Though the Nazis, the World War II, the Holocaust, or even the minute drama we observe in “A Hidden Life”, they are all proof of evil’s existence. Malick’s protagonist is therefore a tragic figure from the start – he puts faith in God, but this faith will not yield salvation from an imminent bane of his.
This wistful storytelling builds a powerful contrast with the exuberant nature we get to see in “A Hidden Life”. The photography, helmed by Jorg Widmer, has to be this year’s very top. Widmer, who worked on the set of “The Tree Of Life” too, has a tremendous understanding of image and space. His camera flows dynamically, it’s conscious about its surroundings and makes the perfect use of them. Widmer’s gut tells him when to ring a character forward, and when the nature should have its spotlight.
Visually stunning, but with a dark undertone
Most of “A Hidden Life” resides in the mountainside, where Franz wages a humble life. Malick, instead of opting for gore images and palpable agony, unfolds a beautiful narrative, set somewhere in the evergreen fields of Austria. This setting isn’t anything new for the director though. Such affection for the natural beauty is a trademark of Terrence Malick, so is the peacefulness of the surroundings when compared to the stormy nature humanity.
But no matter how stunning are the Austrian lands, how juicy the grasses and golden the fields, “A Hidden Life” is always filled with a disturbing undertone, an invisible force that disrupts this peace. It’s reflected by the bone-deep and moving performances of August Diehl and Valerie Pachner. The two are capable of breaking your heart and melting the ice inside of it, and when the time comes, illustrate their bond with scarce dialogues.
The images in “A Hidden Life” work flawlessly with James Newton Howard’s subtle soundtrack as well. Both joyful and saddening moments are fiercely accompanied by the film’s main theme, which brings back the best of Howard’s works (mostly his astonishing work in “The Village”). This score itself touches soul, and compliments Malick’s emotional picture.
From its opening sequence, where Malick recollects the rise to reign of Adolf Hitler, to the last frames of the peaceful village of Franz, “A Hidden Life” takes the audience on an ethereal journey, that navigates through war, love and faith with confidence.
It’s the Terrence Malick we loved in “The Tree of Life” and ‘The Thin Red Line” and sure as hell, greatly missed.
Culturally Hated or Loved?
Overall evaluation: “A Hidden Life” speaks the cinematic language with a poetic accent, heavily influenced by the terrific cinematography and extraordinary direction of Terrence Malick. It’s a complete film, and one of this year’s absolute best.
A Hidden Life (2019)
Dir. Terrence Malick
Hate grade: 1/10