A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life (2019)

A Hidden Life (2019)

Written and directed by Terrence Malick.

Like a lot of cinephiles, I have something of a love/hate relationship with Terrence Malick. At his best, the trademarks of his filmmaking (voice over narration, sweeping landscapes shot at “golden hour”, extended tracking shots) work together to create something so much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m thinking here of movies like Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and parts of The Tree of Life (2011). But when Malick’s not on point, it can end up as a bloated mess, such as Knight of Cups (2015) or Song to Song (2017), which I found almost unwatchable. 

I went to a well-attended Members’ Preview Screening at the State Cinema last night and while my expectations weren’t terribly high, I was hoping for an improvement from Malick – and I got that at least! 

A Hidden Life is based on the story of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian-born conscientious objector who went to prison in Germany rather than swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. He left behind in Austria his equally devout wife Fani, his widowed mother and three daughters, who bore the brunt of discrimination from their village for his actions. In 2007 Jagerstatter was beatified by the Catholic church and the religious themes are writ very large across this movie

The film opens with black and white footage coupled with choral music that creates atmosphere as well as exposition for what’s to come. The cinematography by regular Malick collaborator Jorg Widmer is superb. Malick of course makes much of the glorious alpine scenery, the framing is utterly superb and many of those trademark tracking shots here are simply breathtaking in their beauty and as exemplary cinematic craft. It’s worth seeing for this alone. 

The two leads, August Diehl as Franz and Valerie Pachner as Fani are vibrant and engaging and there is a dream-like quality about the idyllic scenes of their simple life in the Austrian alps. However, as the ramifications of Franz’s decision not to fight begin to show, Malick employs increasing jump cuts to heighten their feelings of anxiety and it was more than a little too obvious, taking me right out of the movie. The music by James Newton Howard was alright but to my ear also became far too obvious, especially towards the end of the movie. 

This ends up as a film in two parts. The alpine idyll and the hell of prison, overlaid with narration from Franz and Fani’s letters to each other. This also features a beautifully understated cameo from the late and very great Bruno Gantz as Judge Leuben, who presides over Franz’s hearing in Germany. 

While I think this is a clearly better work than any of Malick’s more recent efforts, it still left me feeling like it didn’t quite work as well as it should. Once again, Malick is overly heavy-handed in key scenes, like he doesn’t trust his audience to be cine-literate enough to get the message, but (as in The Tree of Life) this only occurs in parts. Nevertheless, for me it undercut the overall emotional impact of the piece.

At just short of three hours, this is a long and at times, uneven examination of one man’s small act of defiance and its effect on his family but small acts of defiance are important and should be celebrated at every opportunity. Certainly worth seeing for the cinematography, but do go and see this on the big screen to get the full grandeur of the alps. 

A Hidden Life opens in Australia on the 30th January 2020.

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