Terrence Malick’s latest work, A Hidden Life, is a beautiful-looking film, but of course that is the norm for films from Malick, and it is also very long, again, the norm for Malick. Its musical score is utterly sublime in how it matches those striking images; sometimes original score (this time by new collaborator James Newton Howard) and often classical pieces, all, again, the norm for Malick. It also has monologues usually in breathy voiceovers accompanying that captivating imagery – again, the norm for Malick, but here, notably, they are fewer, sparser, less intrusive than in some of his films of late.
It is, without doubt, his best film since The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, having slipped into self-indulgence of late with recent films, succumbing to his own worst excesses. A Hidden Life may not be his best, but its certainly a return to form. Its certainly got a lot to do with the fact that this is his first film in many years to have a traditional, linear narrative. I’m sure critics will point out, possibly quite rightly, that the film would be just as good minus a third of its running time- I’m a fan of his work (both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life are among my favourite films) and even I would appreciate some keener editing, but hey, if its the price we pay for getting films such as this (essentially extended Directors Cuts minus the usually obligatory truncated theatrical cuts most directors are mandated to initially sanction) then so be it.
A curious note regards the title; A Hidden Life is true of the film itself- as is becoming increasingly so with Malick’s films, no doubt due to financing and distribution deals, the film has been awfully hard to see over here in the UK, not getting much of a theatrical release and only a belated release on digital platforms, forgoing any physical release on disc at all, as far as I can see, which is why I have had to wait until now, with it eventually airing on Sky Cinema. There is something clearly wrong with this world when Malick’s beautiful movies do not automatically get released on 4K UHD; some of his films could sell the format but remain utterly absent (I’d noted a digital 4K release on Amazon but, well, I’m old-fashioned and stubborn enough in my preference for physical releases to vote with my wallet).
My only issue with the film, really, is one the film can hardly be condemned for, as it more concerns the real events that it is based upon: the film is the story of Franz Jägerstatter (August Diehl) who was an Austrian conscientious objector during the Second World War who, refusing to take the Hitler oath as a Wehrmacht conscript, was executed in 1943. His stand as a conscientious objector to Hitler’s rule was condemned in his own village, his family vilified, and his name forgotten until a researcher stumbled upon his story in the 1960s. Its a noble and uplifting story and I feel guilty complaining about it- its just that, for me, the film didn’t really get me ‘into’ Jägerstatter’s head, so to speak- a devout Catholic, it was primarily his religious convictions that formed the backbone of his defiance, which I couldn’t really accept. I was just frustrated that he could make his stand and risk the endangerment and safety of his wife and three daughters (indeed their suffering continued long after his was over) and I could never reconcile his ability to do that to his family in the name of his moral stand, no matter how righteous its may be deemed to be.
That is, clearly, more of an issue with my own point of view than the film itself and its true that the films narrative does raise the issue of his family’s trials back home while he was in prison; its perhaps my own religious conviction being rather more suspect, my own sense of moral code proving dubious.
Its a point made by a painter during the film, who is painting religious iconography and murals within a church, the artist casting doubt on how beatific it is compared to the likely realities behind them, and how churchgoers themselves may have acted in the events: “I help people look up from those pews and dream,” he says. “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did.” Perhaps what Malick is doing is asking what we would do in Jägerstatter’s position: to me the truth is that there were no absolutes, and that I would have thought more of my family than my moral convictions and would certainly have signed on that dotted line that would have spared him. In all likelihood, the Catholic church is well on the way to making Jägerstatter a Saint someday soon, but some viewers might see him as something of a stubborn fool who abandoned his wife and children. Malick should perhaps be commended for keeping such ambiguities, if so intended, but it does leave the film, for me at least, one with a frustrating core.