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Non-Review Review: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is both surprisingly moving and about an hour too long.

Writer and director Terrence Malick bases A Hidden Life around the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter. During the Second World War, Jägerstätter was called up to serve in the armed forces. He refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and so was punished for his pacifism. It’s a weighty and important story, and Malick ensures that any contemporary relevance will not be lost on viewers. A Hidden Life grapples with that most fundamental of questions, what it means to be a good person in a fallen world and how the measure of such morality might be taken.

Going to grass…

As one might expect from Malick, A Hidden Life is shot and edited in a rather disjointed and impressionist fashion. The film often feels like a waking dream. Scenes are not always clearly delineated, often beginning in the middle of abstract conversations that then play over atmospheric establishing shots like some sort of historical stream of consciousness. It’s an approach that has defined a lot of Malick’s later work, but is perhaps best seen as an outgrowth from Tree of Life. That sort of emotive and drifting storytelling style works oddly well when applied what is both a linear story and a familiar historical milieu.

The big problem with A Hidden Life is that it feels highly repetitive and redundant, particularly in its final ninety minutes. Rather than advancing or developing his thesis, Malick spends the final ninety minutes of the film just bluntly restating it over and over. It is exhausting, and not necessarily in the way that a film about the virtues of peaceful protest in an unjust world should be.

Peak Malick?

Malick films A Hidden Life entirely using wide angle lenses. The effect is impressive. As one might expect given Malick’s sensibilities, it works beautifully on the landscape shots. The first ninety minutes or so of A Hidden Life focus on the idyllic existence that Jägerstätter enjoyed before his conscription, his work as a farmer in the Austrian mountains. Malick captures the natural beauty of the landscape, with the wide angle lenses serving to make the human characters seem particularly dwarfed by their surroundings.

The farming community seems untouched by modern civilisation, with A Hidden Life devoting a lot of its time to the mundane facets of day-to-day existence; reaping in the fields, working the looms, playing in the grass, walking in the forest. It lends the film an enchanting fairy tale quality, the landscape reflecting Jägerstätter’s belief that – even with the war raging to the east and west – his family life might be some miracle remain untouched by harsh realities. After all, what is the point of living in the mountains, if one cannot remain above it all?

Don’t fear the reaper.

Indeed, the sequences where the real world intrudes into that farming community are effectively unsettling. Malick uses the weather remarkably well, clouds suffocating the mountaintops as things grow muddier. While the wide angle lens make the exteriors look beautiful, they have a distorting effect on close-up and interior shots. As the camera pushes in on the people around Jägerstätter, who fall increasingly under the sway of toxic ideology, their faces seem grotesque and warped and monstrous. Those spaces appear uncomfortable and alienating, contributing to the film’s mounting sense of dread.

The use of language in A Hidden Life also contributes to this. Interestingly, given its largely Austrian and German cast, most of the dialogue is in English. This makes the film’s use of German as a bureaucratic language – as the language of statecraft – seem all the more hostile and uncomfortable. It is very effective way for Malick to establish a barrier between Jägerstätter’s life and the outside forces intruding into it. The use of English also makes it clear the the film’s questions extend beyond its specific historical and geographical context.

Peace on Earth.

A Hidden Life takes on the form of a parable. The dialogue is largely drawn from Jägerstätter’s own letters, written during his imprisonment, and so fits whether neatly with the extended montage sensibility that defines so much of the film – words and images not linked by physical proximity, but by emotional resonance. As with Tree of Life, Malick shoots the film with an almost religious awe; the exterior shots seem like an effort to take in as much as possible, while the camera often drifts softly through the film’s spaces like an observer unbothered by the petty tribulations of mankind.

A Hidden Life ruminates heavily upon the sky. “Who sees us?” whispers one character, and A Hidden Life seems genuinely curious as to whether anything is sitting up above us in judgement. In captivity, Jägerstätter looks to the sky and listens for the low rumble of divine judgment – whether it comes in trumpets or bomber runs. Even indoors, beautiful plastering work reinforces the sense of a world that exists above or beyond that inhabited by the characters. Whereas his accusers worship the busts of Hitler that decorate their offices and courtrooms, Jägerstätter instead looks to the cross.

Violence is Nazi answer.

This religious sensibility carries over to the writing. A Hidden Life is an extended parable about the battle between good and evil in the world. “Don’t they recognise evil?” asks one observer as the local community succumbs to nationalist rhetoric. Edmund Burke once argued that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing, but A Hidden Life offers a slightly more affirming suggestion. Sometimes all that somebody can do when confronted with pure evil is nothing, is to refuse to allow themselves to get swept up in it or to be coerced into participating in it.

A Hidden Life runs into two problems. The first isn’t really a major problem, more a feature of how Malick has chosen to approach his subject matter. The writing is rather heavy-handed and on-the-nose. A Hidden Life will disappear along tangents for extended periods, but with the dialogue doing a lot of heavy lifting to reinforce the central themes. There is an extended sequence in which Jägerstätter accompanies a painter responsible for restoring church decals. The painter ruminates at length about how he can never know what it means to suffer like Jesus did, as the camera lingers on Jägerstätter.

To love beerly.

This ties into the bigger issue with A Hidden Life. Malick structures the film as something approaching a passion play. Indeed, the various supporting characters who drift into and out of Jägerstätter’s life in the second half of the film are perhaps better defined by their roles in the allegory than by their actual names. Matthias Schoenaerts shows up briefly as Captain Herder, but he is really Satan in the desert; a suave man in a suit who urges Jägerstätter to just give it all up. Bruno Ganz plays Judge Lueben, the Pontius Pilate of this narrative, the wavering official who must pronounce Jägerstätter’s sentence.

A Hidden Life falls into a trap common of allegories, most recently obvious with mother! Once the audience figures out what story Malick is retelling, A Hidden Life have very little novelty to offer. Instead, the second half of A Hidden Life descends from the nightmarish dread of the first half into dull repetition. A Hidden Life commits what is an unforgivable sin in a movie of this length. It recycles scenes and monologues seemingly without purpose or variations. Not only do characters line up to beg Jägerstätter to renounce his beliefs, they often do so in exactly the same terms.

Field of view.

To be fair to Malick, the dull repetition is undoubtedly meant to be the point – the audience should feel those arguments washing over Jägerstätter with the certainty and inevitability of the tide, with the understanding that they might through repetition break him down. However, it becomes numbing in an entirely different way, as A Hidden Life gets stuck playing out different iterations of the exact same scene no fewer than five times. There is no novelty, no ingenuity, no insight.

A Hidden Life is a beautiful and moving piece of film. Unfortunately, like a lot of later Malick films, it could do with a tighter narrative focus. The movie wants to celebrate Jägerstätter’s resolve, but tests the audience’s patience.

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