I had hoped that Terrence Malick‘s “A Hidden Life” would finally be the movie to bring the auteur back into tip-top shape, after a trio of bad movies (“To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” “Song to Song”), however, alas, that is not the case.
The story of Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), the Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Germans during World War II, is a fascinating one, but Malick decides to self-indulge yet again. Clocking in at close to three hours, the film is an hour too long with a very weak middle section. Someone really needs to tell Malick to hire an actual editor.
The film takes place between 1940 and 1943, the Third Reich’s reign all but sealed, with Jagerstatter eventually sent to a military prison, where his fate would be death. The dialogue is spoken in both German and English; the mix works, and the actors, especially the two leads, are fantastic, but where’s the coherence?
Jagerstatter’s story is told exactly the way you’d expect Malick to tell it. Sure, there are big dramatic turns here and there, but goddamn can this be a slog to behold. I am convinced that, judging by some of the powerful scenes in this film, and there are quite a few of them, a masterpiece is indeed hidden somewhere in the mess. In fact, the final half hour should be kept — it is absolutely perfect in every way, shape and form, and proves that Malick can still give us that immense cinematic high he had in his first 5 movies.
The fact that he has decided to set "A Hidden Life” in Austrian farmland territory, Radegund, is a positive, as his previous three movies were in Oklahoma, Los Angeles and Austin. The dialogue, much like his previous three films, which I like to call the “Texas Nouveau Riche” trilogy, is either spoken softly or muttered in poetic fashion. The cinematography by Jörg Widmer is absolutely stunning, but who are we kidding here? This is a three-hour indulgence-fest that will struggle to find an audience when it is eventually released, unless it wins the Palme D’or that is.
It’s a real shame, because for the first half hour of the film I really believed Malick finally had his groove back. The scenes between Franz, his wife Franziska (the excellent Valerie Pachner) and their young daughters are touching, evoking the naturalism that has made some of Malick’s most beloved works resonate so powerfully. The married couple live a peaceful existence until Franz decides to play martyr and conscientious objector against the war. Franz even visits the local bishop for religious advice on abstaining from the war, for which the bishop more subtly replies his adherence to the Nazis. Franz is eventually called up to fight, but he refuses, and his slow, very slow, progressing demise begins before our very eyes.
The themes of God and religion have never escaped Malick’s works, but here it is tackled to the nth degree. He depicts Franz as a God-fearing man who used the morals the bible teaches us to object to the Nazi code. Franz’s religious dilemma is all over this movie, with the picturesque local church of Radegund depicted as an almost sacred ground.
With his last four movies, Malick is recycling the shot compositions and images that kickstarted with “The Tree of Life" and have been carried forth all the way to this movie. Film critic Todd McCarthy’s descriptions of these shots must be mentioned: “gorgeous fields, scythes cutting through them, open spaces as far as the eye can see, land unspoiled but for animals scuttling about and a rustic, hand-built house anyone would love to call home.”
If anything, I am well aware that it is not legitimate to complain about an auteur’s recurrent visual cues and stylistic choices from film to film, but what Malick created in 2011 with “The Tree of Life” was the absolute peak of what he has been trying to replicate for the better of the last 8 years since. With “Radegund,” he has no doubt made a bit of progress in trying to find himself as an artist again; a screenplay is actually used, the setting is vastly different, the actors are not A-list celebs and there is genuinely felt emotion in the story. [C+]