We lived above the clouds.” – Fani Jägerstätter

Director Terrence Malick isn’t known for his very straight forward story telling methods. Surprisingly ‘A Hidden Life‘ is his most mainstream film in years. In saying that, he doesn’t necessarily let go of his visionary filmmaking strategy, but makes it more approachable for audiences who unknowingly sit down for a Malick-film.

Based on real events, A Hidden Life is the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August DiehlInglourious Basterds), who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. When the Austrian farmer is faced with the threat of execution for treason, it is his unwavering faith and his love for his wife, Fani (Valerie PachnerThe Ground Beneath My Feet), and children that keeps his spirit alive.

After an introduction to late 1930s’ Nazi uprising, using real footage of Hitler around that time, we dive into the breathtaking scenery of Radegund, Austria – and also the close-by natural beauty of Italy. We meet the Jägerstätter-family – close-ups and shaky cam are used to get a more “natural” feeling of intimacy, but while the English narration of the story switches between Franz and Fani, the actors interact with their fellow family members and other farmers in the village in almost incomprehensible German (there’s also no subtitles, for those who really wonder what they’re saying). It makes you think Malick wrote the story after the entire thing had already been filmed.

After being sent to Enns Military Base in 1940, Franz’s conscience gets in the way and he realises he doesn’t want to kill people in war. When back in Radegund, he asks for guidance from his excellensie (played by the late Michael NyqvistJohn Wick). When a trio of nazi’s visit the village to ask for a contribution to the army, Franz decides to send them away, as he isn’t interested in pledging allegiance to Hitler, which causes the small farmers town to turn their back on the Jägerstätter-family, out of shame. Resenting his pride, the townspeople bully the couple and curse at them on every possible occasion, even long after Franz gets taken into custody for treason.

The almost three hour long film feels much longer than that. Without much happening throughout its runtime, there’s always a chance of people leaving the theatre before the credits start rolling. There’s no need to cut back to scenery for minutes at a time, or just watching kids playing in the grass, when this doesn’t contribute to any narrative you’re trying to persuade. Malick is a pro at doing so. His films are without a doubt made for cinephiles, who like to dissect every single shot and find a meaning behind certain angles within the story. Jörg Widmer‘s (The Tree of Life) cinematography is stunning, there’s no arguing about that, and with James Newton Howard‘s absolutely magical strings-heavy score playing in the background, you can mostly just sit back and enjoy what’s on screen. What also helps is the quality of sound, that just seeps like warm butter into your ears. It makes up for a disappointing story that could’ve been told in a simpler way, without losing the sheer brilliance of Malick’s admirable style of filmmaking.

The acting ensemble, mostly driven by Diehl and Pachner’s undeniably natural chemistry, isn’t anything remarkable. You’ll believe them as peasant farmers, but other than that, the film never feels authentic in its time period, solely because it’s set in an environment that is so distant from the real world, besides the scenes that take place in prison. The moral of Malick’s story is so stretched out, it loses the core essence on the unbreakable bond of family and religion, to a slowly faltering yet pompous way of showing how lost a director can get in his own form of art. Without any emotional pay off in a film that has been set up so dramatically, what’s even the point?!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review – ‘A Hidden Life’

Reviewed at Event Cinemas, Sydney, Jan. 23, 2020. Australian Classification: PG. Running time: 174 min.

PRODUCTION: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation with support of Medienboard Berlin-Brandeburg of a Studio Babelsberg, Elizabeth Bay Productions. Producers: Elisabeth Bentley, Dario Bergesio, Grant Hill (p.g.a.), Josh Jeter (p.g.a.). Executive producers: Christoph Fisser, Marcus Loges, Henning Molfenter, Adam S. Morgan, Bill Pohlad, Yi Wei, Colton Williamson, Charlie Woebcken. Co-producer: Jini Durr.

CREW: Director/writer: Terrence Malick. Camera: Jörg Widmer. Editor: Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones. Music: James Newton Howard.

WITH: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Karin Neuhäuser, Mario Simon, Tobias Moretti, Ulrich Matthes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, Karl Markovics, Bruno Ganz.

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