A HIDDEN LIFE
Don't call it a comeback, but even so, A Hidden Life really is the best Terry since The Tree of Life, and it might be even better than that.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Spoiler alert: inapplicable
With A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick has done something a little different. It's easy to overstate how different: there's enough chatter about this being the director's "return to form" that it seems prudent to mention that it is nothing of the sort, not really; the aesthetic and thematic concerns that motivate A Hidden Life can be mapped backwards in a straight line all throughout each of his 21st century films, and just because Malick's line is at a weird tangent to everybody else's, it's not particularly hard to connect what he's doing here to everything he's been doing these past twenty years, starting with The New World (if not The Thin Red Line). But it's especially of a piece with his most recent films, those radical experiments in editing, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, which (however complete they are unto themselves) now tend to feel ever-so-slightly like testbeds for the esoteric cinematic tools their creator would ultimately use here.
But it's a little different from any of those films, anyway. It's arguably distinct from anything else Malick's ever made, certainly more distinct than Cups and Song are from each other, or both of them are from The Tree of Life—not because it's a "narrative film," because almost all of his movies are still "narrative films," and not half as hard as people make them out to be in order to seem smart, but because for the first time since Days of Heaven, and possibly the first time in his whole career, Malick really has devoted one of his films to its characters, that is, human beings who actually do feel like real-deal people, rather than solely just a bunch of fleshy metaphors upon whom Malick has painted the emotional, spiritual, and philosophical states that he's usually more interested in than human psychology and personality. That he has still not stopped using his characters as fleshy metaphors for the mystical concepts he'd like to explore, and drawn those emotional, spiritual, and philosophical states out of them relatively naturally, rather than imposing them upon his subjects as per usual, is in fact one reason why Malick's newest and most distinct motion picture is a flat-out masterpiece. But there are many others.
These human beings that A Hidden Life takes as its primary (almost exclusive) focus are indeed realer than usual, for here Malick purports to tell the true story of Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter (August Diehl and Valerie Pachner), who were husband and wife farmers, devout Catholics, and parents to three daughters, that lived in the uplands of Sankt Radegund during the time of the Austrian Anschluss. Franz is the more famous of the pair, for he was the one beatified by the Catholic Church in 2007 in (very) belated recognition of the way he died—namely, by refusing to fight or, really, do much of anything else for Nazi Germany, and, more specifically, by refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler (himself) (no, seriously).
The briefest possible summary of A Hidden Life would describe it as a hagiography for the martyr Franz, and—while I obviously wasn't timing it—I'd estimate that most of A Hidden Life is indeed dedicated to Franz and to the bureaucratic process of his repeated refusals to get with the pogrom, which culminated in his execution in the August of 1943. However, A Hidden Life sits right at the edge of three hours long (insofar as both "having character" and still doing everything else Malick movies are known to do was unlikely to wind up being short), and it devotes a substantial amount of time to Franz's life before he was taken away to die, and to Franziska's life after he has left. It is therefore as much the story of a marriage and a place as it is the story of a generic Christian sacrifice, and it at least feels like it manages an extremely close balance between its two protagonists, as well as its two principal settings.
A Hidden Life has had a lot of its work done for it already just in its choice of subject, its choice of actors, and its choice of locations: there's something so on-the-nose perfect about those names in first place, "Franz and Franziska" (shades of Siegmund and Sieglinde, two other lovers broken by forces beyond their control); Diehl and Pachner make for a pair of persuasive Teutonic archetypes that seem as likely to have grown out of the Austrian soil as to have merely been born to Austrian parents; their home is played by the Alps as themselves, and significant stretches of A Hidden Life are dedicated to the way their green mountains and blue sky serve as a meeting place between heaven and earth. Franz and Franziska (she's called "Fani") are given ample space and opportunity to love one another amongst this Eden nestled away in the clouds, which means, as it always has and always shall in Malick movies, a positively enormous amount of frolicking in fields while his camera worships the pastoral lifestyle. Yet I do not believe that Malick's frolicking has ever been less indulgent, nor more poignant, nor more credible as an act undertaken as an end in and of itself for the people involved, rather than as a symbolic gesture toward the possibility of God's immanence within the relationships that humans forge between nature and between themselves. Though of course, like I said, it still is the second thing. Plus, A Hidden Life also has the best fields.
Perhaps it's that this film grounds its frolics in such specificity, which is true of everything it does: it is the first Malick movie in a long time (again, arguably ever) that has a defined plot and immediate stakes, rather than asking you to invest in the nebulous outcome of a sexual or spiritual malaise. It is therefore somewhat more linear and significantly more dependent on conversations about the ideas its protagonists embody—voiceover narration remains a constant fixture, though even then, it often remains a conversation in substance, Malick's screenplay often directly quoting Franz and Fani's letters to each other—and it's even political in a way that I don't believe Malick has ever so much as flirted with in the past. At least, I don't think it's wholly a coincidence that A Hidden Life's subject matter has intersected with the temporal sphere, something that he usually doesn't seem to give a damn about.
But it is, all of it, rooted in a deeply fascinating dynamic between Fani and Franz, even when they're apart: Franz has developed a dogged conviction, never really in danger of failing even as it causes him and his family great pain, that the Nazis are wrong, and he'll have no part of it; and Fani has been asked to accept the consequences of her husband's open dissent, which she clearly has no special desire to do, even though the film intimates that it was her spirituality and fidelity to God that inspired Franz's own deep convictions and mid-life turn toward piety, and even though she is equally convinced that the Third Reich is an abomination. A Hidden Life thus marches us through the suffering that both partners endured in pursuit of their Christian resistance: Franz's imprisonment, his routine degradation at the hands of almost comically petty Nazi thugs, and, ultimately, his death at the hands of Nazi bureaucrats and executioners; and it is equally about the more subtle crosses that Fani bears, from her family's ostracization in their Nazified community, to the loss of half the labor in her household, to, above all, being deprived of the man she loves and the father of their children, more-or-less by his own choice, though he does not present it as something he was able to choose. It is with this that the frolics, so much a part of Malickian style that they've become shorthand for proponents and detractors alike, become entirely new, soaked through with sadness and sacrifice.
In the meantime, the political and spiritual intertwine as the typical conversation of A Hidden Life revolves around the question that Franz is asked so often—even by Fani—that is, what he hopes to achieve. Diehl is not offered histrionics or soaring speeches in Franz, anymore than Pachner is offered screeching anger or resentment in Fani (they freak out surprisingly little, really, though inevitably they do freak out some). Franz's martyrdom is a quiet and introspective one, but the question they keep asking him is ultimately not one that matters to him; it is more an issue of pure, personal morality than it is anything else. A conversation with a church painter is one of the few that does not directly address the implications of Franz's resistance, but only so it can be about it in a more oblique way, and I suppose it must be one of the most crucial conversations in the film: the painter has never been able to show his audience a "true" Christ because they would have had no use for Him; he speaks of how Christians always fantasize that they would have followed Jesus in his own time, when they really would have helped put him on the cross. And we see this in Franz's innumerable interlocutors—from his parish priest to an archbishop to a Nazi judge—all of whom are staggered by his refusal. Every one of them is a Good German. Only Franz, and Fani, seem to understand what being good in an evil world must require.
And, yes: so far, what I've described is an Oscarbait biopic, if certainly a better-than-average one. (Which is no small miracle: the material could make for a thoroughly mediocre one.) But these aspects of A Hidden Life are only enhancing factors for a film that makes the same arguments in every element of its construction, every image, every sound, every cut. It is, I think, presented from the very point-of-view of a divine observer: not in the trivializing way that "the director is the God of their own movie," but in a thoroughgoing and rigorous way that takes every piece of filmmaking acumen that Malick has developed since The Tree of Life and used it to attempt to demonstrate the omniscient perspective of God in cinematic form. Malick, deprived of his usual collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki, turned instead to Jörg Widmer, a camera operator on most of Malick's modern filmography. Together, they have photographed what seems to be every last shot of this three hour motion picture with a wide angle lens, curving the landscape around the principals, capturing as much of it as possible in every single image, and having the world seem to embrace them; in prison, the effect is sometimes claustrophobic, but often somehow makes the walls recede, implying that Franz is freer in his mind than any human observer would suppose. (I suspect it is extremely important that, for what I believe to be the first time in Malick's career, he's opted for a straight-up POV shot, and when he does it's during a beating that Franz endures. If the camera of A Hidden Life is the eye of God, then, in his most acute suffering, Franz indeed briefly merges with his deity, as holy as a human being can be.) The angles are not always, maybe not usually, conventional ones, emphasizing that nothing really ever goes unseen. And the palette is dominated entirely by blues and greens in the Alps, and by beiges and grays in the prison: there is barely a hint of red in the entire film, except for the swastika flag. It is clear what pleases A Hidden Life's God: frolicking and children, mountains and streams. It is equally clear what it finds displeasing: hatred and cowardice, hypocrites and Nazis.
But it is within the editing, both of shots and of sounds, that A Hidden Life makes its real play for the mystical, to attempt to see through the eye of God, and it is also where the experiments in abstracted, impressionistic cutting of Cups and Song become, in this new and more well-defined context, an absolute triumph of filmmaking. Moments overlap throughout A Hidden Life; few scenes are really "scenes" in the traditional sense, rather than collections of instants, snippets of time, mixed together in ways that flow without necessarily connecting in linear sequence. There is a sense of permanent "now" throughout, an impression that time is not experienced as a succession of events, but as a single, unified moment. Sound—sometimes strangely-aggressive, rhythmic sound, another novelty in Malick—bleeds across scenes, adding to the sensation that everything is happening simultaneously. (Though the only real flaw in the whole design is, sadly, audio: as much as the sound design—often supposing a certain conflict between Nazism and nature—is effectively perfect, the decision to do the film in English, but also do a lot of the Nazis' dialogue in German was a pretty lousy mistake; I get what it's after, because it's cliche as hell.)
Maybe most ambitiously, however, there's those little jump-cuts that knife through so many of Franz's interactions with so many of his persecutors: the camera will be sitting there, describing the raging or badgering face of a Nazi, and then, without any warning, it will leap to another shot of them, with an expression of regret or confusion or shame. It is another way that A Hidden Life emphasizes that, in fact, nothing can be truly hidden.
Then there are the weirder, more playful bits with stock footage: the Riefenstahl imagery is not exactly fun, of course, and is here mostly to set the scene; but the use of vintage footage, sped up, to depict Franz's train ride into oblivion (or, if you prefer, salvation) is interesting, somehow meaner-feeling than it even needs to be; and, as I alluded to earlier, there is Hitler and his home movies, a truly bizarre interval inside the first hour of A Hidden Life, in which we see Hitler himself frolic, in a somewhat-Malickian fashion. It is a sly self-deprecating joke that Malick's making here, maybe, but I choose to read true significance into this, given that everything about the film is so obviously significant: it is, I think, a reminder that Hitler was human, capable of grace yet making choices, every day, that drew the world further away from the light; it is a reminder that few choose correctly, and that is why this film exists, that those who do should not be consigned, as George Eliot put it in the Middlemarch quote that serves as the epigram to Malick's film, to just "unvisited tombs."
As I've doubtless made overplain in this review, this is by far Malick's most overtly Christian movie, though it remains idiosyncratic and true to the man who made it. If it is not the best movie Terrence Malick has ever made, then it is only because The Tree of Life is more cosmic; it is, in any event, the most deliberately and intelligently made of all of Malick's ten films, the most rewarding to puzzle out the meaning behind each individual choice, and, honestly, the first he's ever made that isn't in some sense arbitrarily long (there's a reason The Tree of Life and The New World can exist in numerous cuts and nobody really talks about the differences between them). It is also something worth being thankful for in the depths of 2019: it only took 358 days or so, but I finally got to see at least one new movie this year that was genuinely great.