Someday, I may have courage to venture. Not yet.
Terrance Malick’s A Hidden Life, inspired by the true story of a conscientious objector in the face of Nazi tyranny, is a powerful, challenging production. Coming through just short of a three-hour runtime, its throbbing narrative basks, and basks, and basks in the nefarious interference of belief, weaving a worn journey through oppression and nature. It requires a level of patience, observance, and understanding that most films don’t even attempt asking for, and that sort of ambition, while well-fostered, runs the serious risk of driving audiences towards indifference of its reigning principles.
August Diehl (ironically recognizable from his brief, but remarkable appearance as an SS officer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) plays Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, the kind of real-life hero who isn’t celebrated enough on the big screen. Introverted in nature, his beliefs are centered around a firm fixture of good and evil; they are not drenched in politics, nor are they riddled in skepticism or judgement towards others. While he refuses to spout a “Heil Hitler” to his neighbors, he’d still consider them his friends – if they had any interest in being so.
Beginning in 1939, with a newsreel montage establishing Hitler’s rise to power, the effects of the impending war ripple throughout Germany and Franz’ agricultural town of St. Radegund. The inherit beauty of its plains and atmosphere are deeply considered by Malick, whose camera far too often stands in awe of its surroundings. And that beauty, despite the sickening events unfolding within it, never falters; as Franz, whose steady and passive resilience grooves him deeper and deeper into the Reich’s confinement, points out, nature is wholly indifferent.
However, cast in the aftermath of Franz’s actions are his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and his three young girls. Through their narrative, consisting heavily of belittling from their fellow farmers, Malick conjures largely disregarded questions about the predicaments of insistent faith: is it morally acceptable to not consider the effects of your actions on your loved ones? Is it a sin to choose life at the expense of your inner patronage? How about the other way around? Franz is regularly scolded and demeaned by such questions – “do you really think you’re going to change things?” is one that is asked at every level of German skepticism – but while the tortuous path laid out for him is meant to stall his efforts and squash his philosophy, they only strengthen his resolve.
The storm of stubbornness and sacrifice that makes up Franz is a perfect match for Malick, whose recent work has been similarly scorned for its self-indulgence and its clear preference of crafting visual excelsior over a direct narrative. A Hidden Life, though perhaps his most structured work in a long, long time, does condone lengthy fluff. Its visual majesty, unquestionable in its presence, regularly strangles the viewer, escalated to the point where its breathtaking presence nearly runs itself dull.
You’d think that after two years in post-production, some of the sweeping nature shots would be shaved off. They aren’t. Neither are some awkward editing marks, wreaked by strange, decapitating angles and jerkiness in the action. While they don’t necessarily infringe on the visceral performances, or the spiritual suaveness and commitment of the story, I’d be lying if I said they did anything but add grueling and compromising minutes to the rich experience of A Hidden Life.
by Luke Parker