Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Bruno Ganz
It took 25 years for Terrence Malick to create three features; Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Who among us would have predicted the six he has given us over the last decade? This late career run produced some astonishing if polarising work, as Malick’s already delicate touch took flight. The films from The Tree Of Life and Song To Song have felt light as air, referred to in some quarters as his ‘Twirling’ phase. Free of traditional scripts, these films meandered and sang, more preoccupied with advancing a spirit of fleeting grace than with forwarding particular narratives.
A Hidden Life is the sixth and last feature from Malick to appear in this late surge, but it also represents either a break from this chain or a kind of reckoning. The elusive auteur realigns himself with the characteristics of traditional narrative storytelling for this Austrian-set WWII picture, though he retains most if not all of the tics that have inhabited his last five films. It is as though early and late Malick have finally been drawn together, fused.
The result is, frankly, humbling to behold. A picture of immense compassion, love, and existential worry.
1939. Franz (August Diehl) and Fani (Valerie Pachner) are farmers living in St. Radegund, on the steep slopes of the valleys facing Schöckl; a mountain jutting up into the blue infinite. Early voiceover (of course there’s voiceover) tells us that its a life above the clouds, an early indication – if any were needed – that Malick idolises their communion with nature, and intends to cast their hard but harmonious existence as close to heaven on Earth. The couple are very much in love, and three daughters scamper in their midst as they harvest the hay or tend to the animals. It’s a remote life, but an idyllic one.
Then comes war and the Nazi occupation of Austria. Franz is pressured to fall in line with his submissive countrymen, but the thought of swearing fealty to Hitler sticks in his throat. A man of principal, he cannot kowtow to a regime he is convinced is evil. His morality won’t permit it; his faith won’t either. His faith, that is. The church urges him to unite with his country, but Franz cannot acquiesce. There’s pride and stubbornness in his decision, and ego, but also conscience. Fani can only watch as her husband resigns himself to martyrdom. When he is drafted and refuses to salute, he is imprisoned, and the two of them are wrenched further from one another. If The Thin Red Line was a film about war as an atrocity against nature, then A Hidden Life positions war as an atrocity against the soul.
One is forced to question – as Franz does – whether taking this stand is the right thing to do. What can it prove? What is the worth of a lone, unheard voice, quietly saying ‘no’? And, given the circumstances of his love for Fani and the children, is it a justifiable sacrifice?
The latter half of the picture finds Franz and Fani communicating via letters to one another, allowing Malick a backbone for the film’s narration. The two profess their love for one another. Franz writes of his hopes of seeing their children again, yet neither speak of the tribulations that they encounter as a result of his decision. Franz himself must accept beatings by prison guards and acts designed to demean him, meanwhile Fani becomes outcast in their rural community. Her peers steal from her and the family is exiled from community activities. The meanness is almost redolent of the inhabitants of Von Trier’s Dogville.
So both lovers have hidden lives; truths that they shield from each other. In a sense what’s left is their pact of devotion. These lies by omission don’t count as such, instead seeming more like an unspoken agreement between them; these trials simply do not matter in the grand scheme of their love. Fani is partner in her husband’s martyrdom, and prone to such leanings herself.
The vast landscapes of the Austrian wilds mean that A Hidden Life unfurls at a positively operatic scale. The vast hills come to feel like the diametrically opposed positions of good and evil, right and wrong, that this family find themselves caught between. Their predicament towers over them, especially during the film’s first half, which features much soul-searching. A Hidden Life is nearly three hours in length, and its leisurely about it’s process, but it never feels as though its dawdling. Malick continues to favour collage and improv in his scenes; his skilled editors maintaining a graceful flow that makes the picture feel again like it is drifting just over the ground, skimming the ears of corn in the fields.
Franz’s case goes to trial and then sentencing, and one senses his faith tested. Malick’s tender relationship to his faith has formed a part of his films for decades, and while he condemns the church here for their cowardice during the war, devotion has never felt so pressing in his work. There’s a Job-like quality to Franz, and the elegiac way in which he is sometimes depicted brings to mind the all-time cinematic treaty on persecution; Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
And so, in another sense, A Hidden Life is a very heavy picture. While Malick’s camera glides, the subject matter is oppressive, grandiose; magnified by the enormity of those mountains. Here Malick touches the same level of austere reverence found in war pictures by Spielberg, Polanski, Haneke. But his own distinctive authorial stamp never wavers. The picture is Malick through and through. Every frame. Every cut. Every whisper.
That nearly everyone speaks English and the children never age matters not a jot. This is cinema sent from the heavens. It deserves to be seen on the big screen. But be prepared to feel ant-like once it’s finished with you. Literally breathtaking.