Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 19th, 2019
A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, 2019) 1 out of 4 stars.
Once upon a time, I admired the work of Terrence Malick. His debut feature, the 1973 Badlands, remains one of my favorite films of all time, its combination of cinematic lyricism, naturalistic performances (from Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen) and evocative music offering a profound viewing experience. Unfortunately, with time has come indulgence, along with a relative prolificacy of output that once eluded him. Whereas Malick made only three movies from 1973 to 1998, since 2005 he has directed six features. In his case, less would be more.
That includes his latest, A Hidden Life, an almost three-hour homage to the martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who was executed by the Nazis in 1943 for refusing to serve in the armed forces and, more egregiously, to sign a mandatory loyalty oath to Hitler. It is wonderful that he here receives just tribute for his sacrifice, and Malick imbues the movie with his usual mix of beautiful compositions and sound design, yet would that such a panegyric came without an overweening sense of self-importance. Instead, we have an overlong and overstuffed encomium that leaves us wishing the bitter end would come as soon as possible. Somehow, I don’t think that was the objective (though the aesthetics and pacing are all, no doubt, fully intentional).
August Diehl (The Young Karl Marx) plays Jägerstätter, and Valerie Pachner (The Ground Beneath My Feet), his wife, Fani. Both actors deliver intense performances, most remarkable for their frequent outward calm, emotions roiling just below the surface. Unfortunately, Malick’s insistence on filming much of the movie on a roving Steadicam, with a wide-angle lens mounted on the camera, creates a visually off-putting style that distorts the actors’ faces and rarely allows their stillness to resonate. Worse, at times no one – especially the many supporting players – seems to know exactly where to look, even appearing to flinch at the nearby camera (wide-angle lenses require extreme proximity for their close-ups), constantly bobbing and weaving as it does. Yes, there are moments of apparent tripod-anchored bliss, the frame steady as Malick captures his trademark shots of nature (in this case, repeatedly showcasing the Austrian Alps). But the rest is a morass of unmotivated movement.
Filmed in English with dialogue spoken by native German speakers, A Hidden Life also suffers from a resultant stiltedness that no amount of emotional commitment on the part of the performers can entirely overcome. It would have been much better to shoot in German and present with subtitles, allowing Diehl, Pachner and the rest their full range. Unfortunately, this is the way American filmmakers have always operated, for sure, though one would hope that the 21stcentury would pave a new cinematic way forward. As if recognizing the absurdity of the linguistic conceit, Malick has extras and bit players bark in German, at intervals, which makes no sense. No amount of cameos from great actors like the late Bruno Ganz (Heidi) or Alexander Fehling (Three Peaks), among others, can untwist this odd dilemma of the tongue.
So much of Malick’s method appears aimed at distanciation of the audience. Given his history of bold decisions (whether one admires them or not), there must be a reason, but whether it is the excruciating length, the broad exposition, the intrusive camera, awkward line delivery or repeated cuts to mountains, everything here serves to kick us out of the story, rather than involve us in what could be a moving narrative of resilience. We sit outside, staring in, wondering at these strange denizens of a far-away place. Their lives are hidden, indeed.