LOS ANGELES (Variety) – There are no battlefields in Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” — only those of wheat — no concentration-camp horrors, no dramatic midnight raids. But make no mistake: This is a war movie; it’s just that the fight shown raging here is an internal one, between a Christian and his conscience. A refulgent return to form from one of cinema’s vital auteurs, “A Hidden Life” pits the righteous against the Reich, and puts personal integrity over National Socialism, focusing on the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter’s rejection of Adolf Hitler and his refusal to serve in what he sees as an unjust war.
And lest that sound like more flower-power finger-painting from a director whose oeuvre can sometimes feel like a parody of itself, consider this: Without diminishing the millions of lives lost during World War II, Malick makes a case for rethinking the stakes of that conflict — echoes of which can hardly be ignored in contemporary politics — in more personal terms. Here, it is the fate of one man’s soul that’s at play, and nearly three hours of screen time doesn’t seem the slightest bit excessive when it comes to capturing the sacrifice of Franz (Austrian actor August Diehl), who was ostracized, imprisoned, and ultimately executed for his convictions.
Over the past decade — during which Malick made his Palme d’Or-winning magnum opus, “The Tree of Life”; whispery self-doubt drama “To the Wonder”; and cost-of-celebrity critique “Knight of Cups” and its music-world equivalent, “Song to Song” — has any filmmaker delved deeper in exploring, and ultimately exorcizing, his own demons? With the benefit of hindsight, those four features represent a cycle of increasingly avant-garde, if ebbingly effective semi-autibiographical projects. By contrast, “A Hidden Life” brings Malick back to the realm of more traditional, linear narrative, while extending his impulse to give as much weight to wildlife and the weather as he does to human concerns.
Better suited to the director’s adherents than the uninitiated, “A Hidden Life” could be seen as a continuation of themes raised in 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” which also took place during WWII, albeit halfway around the world. In that then-radical tone poem, Malick focused on how ill-suited a group of American infantrymen were to the role of combat, melding their interior monologues and interchangeable faces in tragic tribute to the waste of innocence that is war. By contrast, “A Hidden Life” depicts the proactive decision a single would-be soldier makes not to yield to the boiling bloodlust, but instead to follow what the director has previously dubbed “the way of grace.”
Though it privileges the voices of multiple characters — by now, a Malick signature — there can be no question that Franz represents the film’s hero. Delivering his lines in mostly unaccented English rather than his native German, Diehl carries the film despite being largely unknown to American audiences (he played a smug SS officer in “Inglourious Basterds,” and here represents the opposite), relying more on body language and what goes unspoken behind his eyes than on the film’s typically sparse dialogue. Still, Franz is not a conventional Western protagonist in the sense that his story is defined not by his actions but by choices — and specifically, the things he doesn’t do.
“A Hidden Life” introduces this salt-of-the-earth Aryan tending the land with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), high on the slopes of St. Radegund, a bucolic West Austrian town. To the extent that all of Malick’s films represent the notion of Eden interrupted, this setting feels particularly primeval. “How simple life was then,” the couple recall — though the sentiment hardly bears articulating when they are shown picking wildflowers and playing games with their three daughters. Then, in 1940, Franz is called to the nearby Ennis Military Base, where he and a fellow trainee (Franz Rogowski) find amusement among the military drills.
The point of these exercises is to prepare the young men for combat, although Franz refuses to swear his allegiance to Hitler, or to support the war effort in any way. When he is called to serve, Franz instead goes to the town priest (Tobias Moretti) seeking help, only to discover that the church he respected has become complicit in the crime of “killing innocent people.” In truth, Father Fürthauer had been appointed to his post after an earlier priest was ousted after giving an anti-Nazi sermon, and could hardly be relied upon to oppose the new regime.
Appealing to the bishop (Michael Nyqvist, the first of several major Euro stars glimpsed only for a couple minutes), Franz argues, “If God gives us free will, we are responsible for what we do” — and just as importantly, “what we don’t do.” Despite its epic running time, the movie doesn’t bog down in the details, or else we’d learn that Franz was the only person in St. Radegund to oppose the Anschluss — or peaceful annexation of Austria by the Fatherland — a vote of daring personal opposition that was never reported. It’s worth mentioning here because that early stand already revealed the extent to which his community was allowing fear to poison its judgment, driving the groupthink that made Franz feel like an outcast among his own people.
Once Franz makes his oppositional position known, those who might have once been his friends turn on his family. In one scene, a pack of local kids throw mud at his daughters, and later, after Franz is sent away to Berlin’s Tegel prison, neighbors spit at Fani in the road. Where other storytellers might exaggerate such cruelty, Malick doesn’t overplay such slights — and even contrasts them at times, as when an elderly woman stops to help Fani collect what’s spilled from her broken wagon, a gesture of kindness that outweighs even the sadistic behavior shown by Franz’s Nazi guards elsewhere in the film. Till the end, and at great personal cost, Fani supports her husband, while nearly everyone (including Matthias Schoenaerts and Bruno Ganz in brief appearances) seeks to spare his life at the expense of his soul.
Working with a mostly new team of artisans, Malick leans on DP Jörg Widmer (who assisted Emmanuel Lubezki on “The Tree of Life”) to re-create the intense anamorphic widescreen of “The New World,” which distorts whatever appears anywhere other than dead center in frame. Since the director likes to place his characters off-axis, expecting audiences to reorient themselves with every jump cut, this creates — and sustains — a surreal, dreamlike feel for his longest film yet (not counting director’s cuts). This heightened visual style contrasts the rigorously authentic costumes (by Lisy Christl) and sets (from Sebastian T. Krawinkel, rather than career-long collaborator Jack Fisk), while composer James Newton Howard lends ambience and depth between a mix of heavenly choirs and meditative classical pieces.
Don’t let the period setting fool you. While “The Tree of Life” may have felt more grand — and how could it not, with that cosmic 16-minute creation sequence parked in the middle of the film — “A Hidden Life” actually grapples with bigger, more pressing universal issues. Between “Days of Heaven” (Malick’s first masterpiece) and “The Thin Red Line,” the director disappeared from cinema for 20 years. Since his return, his work has been infused with questions of faith, putting him up there with Carl Theodor Dreyer as one of the few film artists to engage seriously with religion, which so often is ignored or dismissed by others despite its prominence in society.
In this film, Malick draws a critical distinction between faith and religion, calling out the failing of the latter — a human institution that’s as fallible and corruptible as any individual. At one point, Franz goes to a local chapel and speaks to the cynical old artisan restoring the damaged paintings on its walls. “A darker time is coming, and men will be more clever,” the man tells him. “They don’t confront the truth. They just ignore it.” In recent years, Malick may have seemed out of touch, responding to issues that interest him more than the public at large. But whether or not he is specifically referring to the present day, its demagogues, and the way certain evangelicals have once again sold out their core values for political advantage, “A Hidden Life” feels stunningly relevant as it thrusts this problem into the light.