Terrence Malick’s Hidden Life (2019): A Review

Going into A Hidden Life, I’d only seen one other Terrence Malick film; Badlands. But surrounding the acclaimed director is a vast love and appreciation for his work, and many of his features have been on my watchlist for some time. So, upon seeing that his latest film was released in the UK I went and spent a wonderful 3 hours watching Malick’s new film. 

In A Hidden Life, Malick’s style integrates an abstract and often dreamy flow throughout the film that makes the whole film play like visual poetry. All the elements combine together to make the film to feel like an epic poem in the same vein as The Odyssey or The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. On the surface this is a film about an Austrian Farmer who stood up for what he believed in, and refused to cave to the Nazi’s, and his own communities’, pressure of pledging loyalty. But on a deeper level, Malick is exploring the idea of what we as individuals owe to each other: is it right to take the easy route and give into the majority even if you don’t agree? Or do we as individuals have a duty to stand up against what we believe is wrong, regardless of how overwhelming a task it may seem? 

This visually poetic style comes across, most obviously, through the collage-esque composition that Malick chooses to use. Using a variety of shots and techniques, such as; wide shots, extreme close-ups, shots of rivers, landscapes, fields, but juxtaposing those with shots of harsh structures and warm spaces too, all backed by an amazing score and often edited with harsh and purposefully jarring cuts, to create an ensemble of shots and styles that utilises each individual aspect that comes together to create a beautiful overall package. The film doesn’t let you forget that you’re watching a film, it relishes in the knowledge that it can show you a story that no other way could, and the film really excels through this. The film will often cut between a still & calm wide-shots to frantic and energetic close-ups, blending archival footage with the staged, that both contrast alongside the heavy and melancholic shots of nature. By using such a clashing and bombastic style, Malick is utilising the medium to its full extent, it’s so overpowering in its technical abilities that it wants you to know that this is a film to give the story its full power. All of this works to give the film its grandiose scale, turning the story of one into a story for all, with the empowering presence of nature, versus the human and intimate scenes of the film adding to form the whole film. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer deserves ample credit for capturing the emotion of the scenes through interesting framing of the characters within the scene, but also through the composition of naturalistic shots surrounding the events, and how these scenes utilise the buildings and cities. Which as mentioned, all add into the sense of scope, scale and emotional intensity the story demands.

Having used the term “visual poetry” in the last paragraph, a description I feel is very apt for this film, the one element I have to point out that helps this feeling come through is the pacing of the script. Malick’s script perfectly balances the seemingly dull but teeming with love and warmth, home scenes with Franz and his family, with isolating and overbearing scenes away from home either in the training camp, and eventually the prisons & courts. Whether it’s through the dialogue, the soundtrack, the pathetic fallacy of the surrounding landscapes, or just through the overall tone Malick crafts; it manages to flow into each section with a sense of poetic rhythm, or that of an opera/ballet, teeming with emotion and drama before each sequence ends, fading to black, before the film launches into the next sequence complete with its own emotions and tone. For a 3 hours movie, the pacing helps the film feel sharp and interesting throughout the long run-time. It’s a meditative piece, reflecting the journey of the main character, which gives plenty of room for many slower, more meticulous scenes that give ample space for pensive and contemplative moments.

August Diehl & Valerie Pachner are both superb in the two lead roles, presenting a relationship burning with love and desire for one-another, while still standing firm in support for each other regardless of the strain and pressure this puts on them, all while living what can only be described as a “hidden life”; farming in rural Austria. The film itself has little dialogue comparatively, with scenes conveying what they need through the actors either in silence, or minimal dialogue backed by the stirring soundtrack. With shots of Diehl & Pachner’s characters Franz & Franziska Jägerstätter scything the fields and sorting through bales of hay conveying the simple life the characters live, while later on, scenes of prison guards squaring up to prisoners on their daily exercise represents the persecution and fear of conformity that clash harshly with the pleasant scenes that came before. As the film progresses, there is a range of interesting characters we are introduced to, and in their own way they all leave a memorable impression; a personal favourite of mine being the mayor character who gives some really impassioned scenes alongside Franz.

While I don’t think A Hidden Life is a perfect film, there are definitely scenes that feel dragged out and bloated, and moments when the actors performance doesn’t quite fit the tone of the rest of the scene, but what, as I’m sure you can tell by now, really blew me away watching this film was how Malick manages to create such a grandiose scale and how it’s contained the epic-form of his storytelling. I’ve heard that A Hidden Life is very accessible compared to some of his other films, which surprises me somewhat but also doesn’t. For someone relatively new to Malick I enjoyed the more abstract elements, but also the self-contained narrative to guide the film’s progression and pace, so if you’re like me and new to the director I would have to say that it was a great insight into his films and definitely makes me want to watch some more of his more recent, and out-there films.

Finally, on a note that I’m sure Malick went into the film intending people to consider. Franz Jägerstätter was a real person, a real life inspiration and a hero in his own way. Ultimately, this story is about standing up for what you believe in, regardless of the consequences, these stories of “hidden lives” are all throughout history, and even if we don’t make a grandiose outbreak of news or attention, we can all make a difference in our own way. And that message, above all else, is one we need more than ever now.

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