Terrence Malick may be one of the most revered of all US filmmakers, but recently that reverence has come from an ever-diminishing group of devotees, while everyone else has been content to ignore him. His spiritual new period drama, A Hidden Life, should reverse that trend. It may not have the stellar Hollywood casts of his last couple of films, but it has the driving sense of purpose which those films lacked. It even has a proper screenplay, instead of hours of sleepy improvisation. The fact that it is gorgeous to look at is a bonus.
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Based on the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector, Franz Jägerstätter, the film is set in the early years of World War Two, although the actors all speak English, not German. At the beginning, Franz (August Diehl) lives with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their three small daughters on a farm near the mountain village of St Radegund. Their bucolic life together is so happy and loving, and the unspoilt vistas around them are so magnificent, that Julie Andrews’ gambols through the Alps in The Sound of Music are like a midnight trudge through a concrete underpass in comparison.
Alas, the hills are soon alive with the sound of aircraft. War breaks out, but Franz decides that, rather than swearing an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he will carry on planting potatoes and scything hay. The priest and bishop he consults send him away from their opulent offices, afraid that he might be a Nazi spy. His fellow villagers encourage him to join the army, their tactics progressing from friendly persuasion to extremely unfriendly persuasion. Finally, he is conscripted, and tells the military authorities that he won’t help the army in any way.
Shot for shot, there can’t be many films as beautiful as this one
There are moments in the film that speak directly to today’s political turmoil. When the village’s mayor (Karl Markovics) rails that “foreigners swarm over our streets”, he sounds worryingly like someone you could see on the news this evening. And when a church painter predicts that the next generation of leaders won’t fight the truth, “they’ll just ignore it”, several 21st-Century leaders spring to mind.
In general, though, A Hidden Life doesn’t talk politics, and it doesn’t enumerate the crimes of the Nazis: Malick presumably expects us to know about those already. Nor does it have Franz explaining why exactly he made his decision. Instead, A Hidden Life charts his inner journey from pained uncertainty to the quiet, unshakeable conviction that he simply cannot do what he believes to be evil. A more typical film might have asked whether that conviction was foolish. What is so daring about Malick’s approach is that he is staunchly supportive of his hero.
It’s an approach that will drive some viewers to distraction, or to sleep. A full hour passes before Franz is conscripted, and about half of that hour consists of footage of him and Fani smiling and chasing each other through the idyllic countryside. Once he is conscripted, there are nearly two hours to go. Various officers, lawyers and priests (Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist crop up in small roles) ask Franz to sign the loyalty oath. Back on the farm, Fani labours away with some help from her sister, but no help from the villagers, who steal from her and spit at her. But there is little in the way of conventional plotting or intense debate. Much of the second half of A Hidden Life consists of the spouses’ loving letters being read out, accompanied by one staggering landscape or townscape after another. Shot for shot, there can’t be many films as beautiful as this one. The only snag is that between the Edenic panoramas, and the Arvo Pärt and Beethoven on the soundtrack, you may find yourself gawping at the scenery when you should be worrying about Franz and his family.
Still, you don’t come to a Malick film for a straightforward war drama. What he offers in its place is a serious meditation on the power of faith, love and nature to sustain you in the worst of situations. And while that might make it seem airy and precious, there is an angry defiance to A Hidden Life as well. In more than one scene, officials tell Franz that his protest is futile, because no one will ever hear about it. Malick seems to be taking grim pleasure in proving them wrong: Jägerstätter’s life did not stay hidden.
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