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Review: ‘A Hidden Life’ is Terrence Malick’s strongest film in nearly a decade

It may not surprise you to learn that “A Hidden Life,” the new film written and directed by Terrence Malick, begins with a voiceover over a black screen. “I thought that we could build our nest high up,” a man intones in a near-whisper, “like birds, in the mountains.” What comes next, though, is surprising: an image of flight that has nothing to do with birds. A German warplane soars above the clouds, then dips low enough to cast a shadow over a city where a march is in progress. We are watching 1930s propaganda footage of a Nazi rally, complete with a shot of Hitler taking the stage, rigid and unsmiling even before a triumphant crowd.

This is not, to say the least, your typical Malick opener. Within moments he will revert to form, enfolding the audience in a lush cinematic pastoral, set to the keening strings of a gorgeous James Newton Howard score. Here, in the Austrian farming village of St. Radegund, are the expected vistas of astonishing natural beauty, the misty mountains and waterfalls towering over a secluded 20th century Eden. Here too are a latter-day Adam and Eve, a married couple named Franz and Fani (August Diehl and Valerie Pachner), sharpening their scythes, tending their livestock and clinging to each other and their young children in an affecting pantomime of domestic harmony.

But another plane will soon fly over St. Radegund, drawing Fani’s troubled gaze skyward before the first of many ominous fades to black. Sometime later, in 1940, Franz will be called up for military training, separating him for a spell from his family. But unlike his fellow soldiers, Franz goes about his duties with little enthusiasm and a growing sense of doubt. When he returns home, he and Fani embrace each other so forcefully that they tumble into the grass — a blissful reunion that both will cling to as they silently join forces against the fascist tide sweeping across their country.

Malick, a Christian philosopher-poet whose meanings can often be vague and elusive, seems to have been stung into an uncharacteristically blunt response, a forceful denunciation of the complicity of church and state.

Franz is a fictionalized stand-in for Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant farmer and devout Catholic who became a conscientious objector, refused to fight for Germany during World War II and was imprisoned and executed in 1943. His courage would be worth memorializing in any year, as it was in 2007, when he was named a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI. But it feels particularly resonant now, at a moment when so many political and religious leaders, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have done their part to foster a global resurgence in white supremacy, right-wing nationalism and anti-immigrant violence. And Malick, a Christian philosopher-poet whose meanings can often be vague and elusive, seems to have been stung into an uncharacteristically blunt response, a forceful denunciation of the complicity of church and state.

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“If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do or what we fail to do, aren’t we?” Franz asks a local bishop. “If our leaders are not good, if they’re evil, what does one do?” The bishop coldly replies that he owes his unswerving allegiance to the Fatherland, but Franz is wise enough not to mistake the clergyman’s voice for God’s. As his doubts manifest themselves in small acts of defiance — refusing to donate money to the war effort, rebuking the local refrain of “Heil Hitler” — he and his wife become pariahs, scorned and attacked by their fellow villagers and taken to task by some of their own family, including Franz’s stern mother (Karin Neuhäuser) and Fani’s sympathetic sister (Maria Simon).

August Diehl, Valerie Pachner and another man and woman sit in the pews of a church in “A Hidden Life.”
Franz (August Diehl) becomes a conscientious objector to the Nazi cause. Next to him is wife Fani (Valerie Pachner).
(Reiner Bajo)

Like a lot of American filmmakers fictionalizing a real-life story, Malick is not overly concerned with strict historic accuracy or, for that matter, linguistic verisimilitude. (Diehl is German and Pachner is Austrian; both speak nearly all their dialogue in English.) Unlike a lot of American filmmakers, he paints with sweeping impressionist brushstrokes and seeks to distill internal states into outward gestures. He treats Franz and Fani’s existence as a three-dimensional canvas through which the camera is free to roam and ruminate, weaving shards of experience and memory into a fragmented but linear narrative. (The breathtakingly intimate cinematography is by Jörg Widmer, the expansive editing by Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason and Sebastian Jones.)

The title of “A Hidden Life” is a reference to a line from “Middlemarch,” and if Malick is not exactly the cinematic equivalent of George Eliot, he is no less devoted to illuminating and exalting moments that could easily be mistaken for unremarkable. What can be singled out as unremarkable, after all, from a life that cumulatively turned out to be so extraordinary? Jägerstätter’s spiritual convictions, Malick seems to reaffirm with every shot, were inextricable from the material privations and emotional riches that constituted his everyday reality.

And so while “A Hidden Life” may consist of nearly three hours’ worth of anguished theological brooding, it is also, no less important, a patient record of midcentury farm life, an ode to the joys and pains of manual labor and, above all, a moving evocation of a family’s resilient love. Malick finds a transporting loveliness in images and exchanges that another filmmaker might have dismissed as banal: in the baking of bread and the milking of cows, in the steady flow of a babbling brook and the way a toddler’s legs dangle after she’s fallen asleep in her father’s arms.

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[‘A Hidden Life’] is a poem and a polemic, an exploratory independent drama and a varnished Hollywood epic, a bold, even visionary work that is not without its compromises.

In time, Franz is called up for military service and, after some argument with Fani and others, decides to report for duty so that he can declare his refusal to fight for the Nazi cause. His rationale is clear and simple — “We have to stand up to evil,” he says — and from there, “A Hidden Life” proceeds to show, with painful attenuation, the consequences of such a moral stand. What we see could easily be mistaken for a documentary on wartime incarceration, so attentively does Malick re-create the ambiance of the prison yard where Franz plays games with his fellow inmates, or the cell where he is taunted and tortured by a guard. In these passages, you begin to feel the tedium of waiting, the unbearable weight of Franz’s long journey to martyrdom, which could be a sign of Malick’s self-indulgence, a testament to his expressive gifts or both.

“A Hidden Life” is replete with such contradictions. It’s a poem and a polemic, an exploratory independent drama and a varnished Hollywood epic, a bold, even visionary work that is not without its compromises. For those of us who have long admired Malick, even during his trying recent forays into contemporary ennui (“Knight of Cups,” “Song to Song”), it’s thrilling to see him return to the historical period that gave rise to one of his finest works, “The Thin Red Line,” and emerge with an antiwar narrative that sincerely embodies its subject’s pacifism. But if “A Hidden Life” is indeed this director’s return to form — his best film since his masterful “Tree of Life,” which it resembles in more than a few respects — it might also be the most frustratingly great movie I’ve seen this year.

Valerie Pachner and August Diehl, kneeling and foreheads together, in “A Hidden Life.”
Fani (Valerie Pachner) and Franz cling together against fascism in “A Hidden Life.”
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Malick’s aesthetic flourishes — the impeccably focus-pulled tracking shots, the mighty blasts of Bach and Dvorak on the soundtrack — can feel revelatory at times and pro forma at others. In a picture that stretches toward three hours, the notable omission of any mention of the persecution of the Jews smacks not of denialism but of incuriosity, and it feels like a missed opportunity. For all the emotional acuity and transparency of the performances by Diehl and especially Pachner, I blanched at the sound of both actors speaking English — a commercial calculation, perhaps, but one that seems all the more dubious given that the Nazi characters bark at each other in German.

But if “A Hidden Life” falls short of sublimity, the troubling, powerful lesson it has to impart — the rarity of real goodness in the face of collective evil — is not so easily diminished. Nor is there any mistaking the gravity and authority of its challenge to the viewer. In one of the most piercing scenes, Franz seeks counsel from a religious artist who mournfully acknowledges how few Christians, himself included, understand what it means to actually follow Jesus, who commanded his followers to lay down their lives out of love.

“I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head,” the painter says. “Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” Malick, whose next film will be about the life of Jesus, clearly hopes to do the same. But after seeing “A Hidden Life,” I can’t help but wonder if, in some imperfect yet indelible way, he already has.

‘A Hidden Life’
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material including violent images

Running time: 2 hours, 54 minutes

Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles
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