A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick is a filmmaker who never fails to inspire debate. His films, while aesthetically pleasing, are often just impressionistic enough to cause a stir, and yet, A Hidden Life still had one of the longest queues at this year’s London Film Festival; for many reasons, filmgoers are always drawn to his work.
Malick’s latest picture is the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who spent most of World War II under threat of execution for treason, after refusing to fight for the Nazis. With all the ingredients of a potential powerful and moving piece of cinema in place, it’s sadly disappointing to see Malick once again fall prey to the usual tendencies that have failed his works in the past; an unnecessarily padded run-time, an over-reliance on repetitive and frankly uninteresting voice-over, and countless pretentious shots that serve nothing outside of his own ego.
It’s absolutely breath-taking to watch, with cinematographer Jörg Widmer in particular deserving of a great deal of praise here. It’s a film worthy of being seen on the biggest screen possible, standing tall with The Tree of Life as one of Malick’s most exquisite pictures. That being said, his arrogant camerawork distracts from this a great deal, with the filmmaker’s intent often unclear or misjudged. It can be difficult to focus on the story, the character and the emotions that come with them, when Malick seemingly can’t do the same.
There is no denying the many moments of brilliance within A Hidden Life. There’s no shortage of scenes that’ll push the audience to the brink, with Jägerstätter’s suffering on full display; raw, brutal and anchored by a frankly phenomenal lead performance from August Diehl. Valerie Pachner’s depiction of Franz’s wife, Franziska, is steeped in humanity, with her desperation, sadness, pride and love for her husband present in even the slightest of mannerisms. Among many things, this is a story about love, and the central pair’s chemistry sells these themes wonderfully.
Despite its strengths, the film lacks the emotional punch it’s going for, thanks in large part to Malick’s lack of interest in his own subject. He simply cannot help himself from meandering, almost to the point of dullness, with endless unnecessary shots of clouds and scenery cluttering the picture. Malick thinks every idea of his is gold; in his eyes, every shot and every word is simply too brilliant to be removed, leaving the film with severe pacing issues amid a shroud of stunning yet utterly pointless artistic prowess.
Malick spends so much time on the things that don’t matter, and very little on those that do. We are sympathetic towards Jägerstätter’s plight because we already know to be, not because of the way it’s executed. The aforementioned moments that work so well are interspersed with sequences that add little or nothing to the overall feature, slowing it down and taking the viewer out of said moment completely.
The film isn’t short of artistic attempts at emotion, but this emotion is forced and never genuinely earned. A Hidden Life works solely on the viewer’s prior knowledge of the war, the Nazis, good and evil, as opposed to the work that’s been done.
A Hidden Life is not the Palme d’Or-nominated masterpiece many people were hoping for from Malick, but rather a repeat of his usual mistakes; a potentially moving and shocking story, buried underneath an artistic vision that simply doesn’t suit, from a filmmaker focused more on his ego than his subject.
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