By Benjamin Akpan
Waves crash softly against the river bed; a light mist fills the air, quenching the heat from the golden afternoon sun. The stalks of wheat beneath you wave quietly in the wind. The faint sound of children frolicking in the distance reminds you of a certain innocence that soothes you. Close your eyes; now open them. No, you are not dreaming – you are simply at the centre of a Terrence Malick film.
Malick’s last couple of efforts have been the most divisive and least assuring of his career thus far: 2012’s To the Wonder was an ambitious ode to love, whose sublime imagery, unfortunately, outweighs its message. Knight of Cups in 2015 was proof that even experimental cinema may have limits. And, following just two years after, Song to Song might’ve been the worst one yet; an uneven concoction that had much to show, yet little to say. The stunning cinematography and poetic voice narration for which his films became known for began to stand out as the only great things in his films. But, for the first time in a while, Malick uses these trademark motifs as tools to make a great film – arguably his best since The Tree of Life. First premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and screening at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘19, Malick’s latest work, A Hidden Life, finds him at his most confident and commanding. Malick has finally regained his stride (though, despite the slew of uninspired undertakings, it is still easy to reason that he never lost it).
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Inspired by real events, A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter (August Diehl and Valerie Pachner, respectively), a young couple living in the lush mountains of Austria. Theirs is a simple, peaceful life of farming, family, and faith. All this is severely tested by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. As the influence of the Nazis grows, the Austrians are forced to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. When called up for conscription, Franz conscientiously objects, and this slowly leads him and his family down a road that eventually tests the limits of his faith and familial affection.
A Hidden Life plays out like a beautiful dream slowly evolving into an imminent nightmare. Along with cinematographer Jörg Widmer, Terrence Malick turns the Austrian landscape into an Edenic expanse brimming with a certain purity and sacramentality left uncorrupted by the wretchedness of the outside world. The forbidden fruit of political neutralism threatens an invasion of this idyll with persecution, shame, the possibility of execution, and – worst of all – the deadening of morality. But Franz is unwavering; his wrestle with faith and moral principles is the epicentre of the entire War for him (a war within a war, if you will), and the film’s position is clear: no amount of loyalty to the state is enough to validate the abhorrence of war. Franz’s refusal to pledge fealty to Hitler is treated as a bold gesture of defiance worthy of admiration, though the ethics of the entire film are almost watered down by the appearance of Bruno Ganz – in his last performance before his passing – as a sympathetic, morally confused Nazi.
All this isn’t to say that the film is without its flaws. Malick’s bigger-than-life structure of the film is exciting to watch, but its premise is too simple to justify its three-hour runtime. Eventually, the wonderment that the film fills you with is gradually replaced with a fleeting sense of ennui, and the repetitive nature of the film draws out its already thin plot to no end.
Amidst all its grandeur, the film is bogged down by Malick’s own self-indulgence. First and foremost a sensuous filmmaker, A Hidden Life is Malick’s way of flexing his creative muscles, showing off his ornate artistry, which – at this point in his career – is difficult to dispute. But after many years of questioning his talent, Malick has earned the right to trumpet his mastery of the craft right in our faces – and for three whole hours, no less.
Still, A Hidden Life is wholly different than any other war movie and sets itself apart from other films depicting the same conflict of World War II. It completely avoids the portrayal of the harrowing violence of war, which, as it turns out, is a fan-favourite, box office magnetizing perspective in Hollywood. Even Malick himself has fallen victim to this in the past, with his 1992 war epic The Thin Red Line. But A Hidden Life takes a step back, viewing war through the gaze of one lowly man far from the battle itself. It is an intimate, deeply meditative approach to a subject that is just as relevant today as it was in 1940.
As Christian as it is political, A Hidden Life is a peaceful middle ground between tranquility and tragedy. It pays respects to lives lost in pointless combat and opposes the idea of war without actually staging one. With a larger-than-life score from James Newton Howard, crisp cinematography, and emotionally ambitious performances, Terrence Malick’s latest is a philosophically proving work that causes us to question the very essence of our humanity.
*Editor’s Note: A Hidden Life was originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘19, and is slated for release on December 13, 2019.